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Mark Bennett B-Sides

October 6, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Could a new champion for public schools be emerging?

Deep down, millions of Hoosiers would wear the label “advocate for public schools.”

Yes, many have their complaints, criticisms and a few “you-know-what-they-really-need-is” suggestions. But, in their heart of hearts, they want to see their alma maters and hometown public schools succeed and progress.

The proof of that bond emerges every time a community faces a possible school closing. Without fail, people arise to passionately plead to keep the doors open, and they extol the quality of the education kids receive and their school’s potential.

They want to improve their schools, not abandon or drain them.

The Indiana Constitution advocates for public schools. That document, which has been in effect since 1851, calls for the “common [or public] schools” to comprise a “general and uniform system” that is available “without charge and equally open to all.”

A hundred and 60 years later, it’s heartening to hear from folks who still believe in the spirit of the constitution’s wording. It was circumvented in this year’s session of the Indiana General Assembly. Republican lawmakers — aligned with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and state superintendent of public instruction Tony Bennett — pushed through broad “education reforms,” including the nation’s most expansive use of taxpayer-funded scholarships to cover private-school tuition fees.

That new program of private-school “vouchers” paid by public funds clashes with the Indiana Constitution in numerous, seemingly obvious ways. Private schools, for example, typically charge for tuition and don’t have to accept all children.

Advocates for that diversion of limited public funds to private institutions know the idea contradicts the constitution, but they also know legal loopholes can be found and used. They rationalize the new law by claiming it gives parents choices they wouldn’t otherwise have, and that competition for students from private schools will inspire improvement in public schools.

Not everyone agrees, including an organization quite comfortable with the label “advocate for public schools.”

The Indiana Coalition for Public Education gathered for its first meeting two weekends ago in Indianapolis. The group, which formed in January, is an important counter-balance to the privatization movement that undermines the state constitution’s commitment to public schools open to all. “The intent is to support public education,” said Tim Skinner, a recently retired Vigo County School Corporation teacher and one of the outnumbered Democrats in the state senate. “The biggest concern this group had was the vouchers.”

That’s why the 700-member coalition has mounted a court challenge to the voucher law, which took effect this summer. The lawsuit points out that the constitution states that “no money shall be drawn from the treasury for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.” Nearly all of the private schools qualifying for the voucher program are parochial.

“The largest response is from parents who want their children to be in religious schools, and now the state is paying for it,” said Vic Smith, a retired teacher and principal and one of six coalition board members. “We feel that’s wrong.”

Plus, the money available to be drawn from that treasury is particularly precious now. Public schools, especially those in urban and rural areas, are already dealing with dwindling funds. Siphoning any of those into private schools makes a difficult task of teaching a broad spectrum of students — not just those who fit certain criteria — even harder. The vouchers, available to lower- and middle-income families, are worth up to $7,930 a year, according to those incomes. The law made 7,500 vouchers available this year, and more than 3,700 students are receiving the money, so far.

Next year, 15,000 will be available. The following year, the cap comes off.

Public school districts are just beginning to see how this new uncertainty will affect their budgets. The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency estimated that $58 million could transfer from public to private schools during the next two school years, according to the coalition.

This state is home to some wonderful parochial schools that carry out the mission of the institution behind them. Smith and Skinner both emphasized those schools have a role in Indiana. The public funding is the problem. “This is a great democracy; everybody has a right to form a school and promote their own agenda,” Smith said, “but I don’t think the public should be paying for it.”

The coalition also challenges some of the assertions of Daniels, Bennett and the reform backers. Public school performance is not declining, according to the coalition’s research. Those numbers show, instead, steady improvement during the past 20 years in attendance, and scores in SAT math, ACT, National Assessment, and ISTEP-Plus, along with a rise in the percentage of students earning Academic Honors and Core 40 diplomas.

“That is not a record of failure,” Smith said.

Skinner pointed out a study by education historian Diane Ravitch, who had been an advocate of vouchers and “school-choice” programs during her days in the President George H.W. Bush administration. She wrote a book called “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.” Ravitch concluded there is no difference in reading or math test results of comparable students in voucher situations and those in public schools.

In an address last spring in Clay County, Bennett said he is often asked how someone with his title — state superintendent of public instruction — can advocate for private schools and home schooling. “My answer to that is, 1.2 million children,” he said. “If you read Indiana law, there is nothing in my job description that says my job is to advocate for public schools.” His department, he added, also provides services for public charter schools, private schools and home schools.

Those additional duties are just that, additional. The state needs an advocate for the school system the constitution requires. Maybe the Indiana Coalition for Public Education can fill that role.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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