Indiana school districts must get voters' approval through referendums for significant building projects. Some pass. Some do not.
Consider the following scenario. The Indiana General Assembly is planning a much-needed increase in funding for K-through-12 education over the next two years, totaling $378 million. The Republican Party leadership — which controls every aspect of state governance — wants to use more than one-third of those taxpayer dollars to further expand what is already the nation's largest public-funded private school voucher program.
The voucher expansion would consume $144 million of that $378 million total.
Ninety percent of Indiana kids attend public schools, which educate all Hoosier youngsters, regardless of their learning difficulties, disabilities, backgrounds, preferences or behavioral problems.
So, more than one-third of the available funding would go toward selective private and parochial school educations, and education savings accounts of up to $7,000 that parents could spend for home schooling, with little accountability. The income eligibility for private school vouchers would expand to include families of four earning up to $145,000 a year. The median household income in Indiana is $56,303, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Now, imagine the General Assembly had to run this idea by Indiana voters through a referendum.
It would not pass. Not by a long shot. Indiana's public schools, hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, need more funding to teach the broad array of Hoosier youngsters. Residents understand that.
But Republican leaders know they do not have to mess with a referendum. They simply have to convince a majority of their Republican colleagues to vote for the House and Senate bills related to these changes during the current legislative session. All but 11 of the 50 state senators are Republicans. Seventy-one of the 100 House members are in the GOP.
So far, their idea is working. Senate Bills 412 and 413 have moved through that chamber, and House Bill 1005 has done the same in the lower chamber.
Republicans have been hammering Indiana's public schools for more than a decade, inspired more by the applause of the national school-choice reform movement than most Hoosiers. They rationalize that "the money should follow the student" rather than funding "school systems" — meaning public schools where members of teachers unions work.
This year's maneuvers are more of the same ideology that emerged more than a decade ago, prompting aggravated Hoosiers to vote former state school superintendent and reformer Tony Bennett out of office. Not surprisingly, voters can no longer do such a thing. The Legislature has since changed the superintendent's job to an appointed position, rather than an elected office.
Because, well, they do what they want and act on behalf of the like-minded.
Thank goodness, there are voices of opposition to the diversion of state funds from public schools toward private ones, however fruitless their objections may be.
"Lawmakers are prioritizing expanding school choice that benefits a small percentage of students in Indiana, and it's at the detriment of adequate funding for public education," Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, told The Associated Press.
Three former state superintendents of public instruction issued a joint statement saying the same thing.
And, although Gov. Eric Holcomb's stance has since softened, he did not embrace such an outlay for private-school vouchers in his State of the State address last month. Expansion of those options “shouldn’t come at the expense of the public school system, which educates 90% of Hoosier children,” Holcomb said then.
As cited before, the annual Hoosier Survey by Ball State University's Bowen Center for Public Affairs in 2015 showed 58% of Hoosiers favored tax dollars going directly to public schools, compared to 39% supporting the use of taxpayer money for private-school vouchers.
All of which verifies one reality — those opposition groups, former superintendents, the governor and Hoosiers in general simply do not understand who is in charge of Indiana schools.