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Sunday, May 9, 2021

Some explaining needed on voucher bill

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Education is essential to our republic and democracy and public education is the civil rights issue of our time. Public education is not working; therefore public education must be fixed.

A proposed remedy is legislation making its way currently through the Indiana General Assembly by way of House Bill 1003, entitled School Scholarships. A more commonly understood term for scholarship being “voucher.” Public education must be fixed, but at what “cost”?

A premise by which voucher proponents lean toward is that parents should have the choice to have their children educated at a “better” school. Parents would have the choice to send their child to a private school by using public funds or to a publicly funded charter school. This column is not to argue the merits of premises, but to provide a perspective for thinking about how the “voucher bill” allows a student to attend a “better” school and whether the “voucher bill” is a legitimate duty of the General Assembly.

So, what is “better”?

The Indiana State Constitution Education Clause (Article 8, Section 1) includes certain duties that the General Assembly must satisfy with any legislation pertaining to making education “better.” There are four phrases that seem to be the foundation for these duties: “knowledge and learning” (point one); “general and uniform system of Common Schools” (point two); “tuition shall be without charge” (point three); and “equally open to all” (point four).

Point one: knowledge

and learning

By using vouchers, is knowledge and learning made to be “better” when it comes to charter schools? It depends. It is reported that 21 of the 25 greater-Marion County charter schools are failing. So, it seems that unless publicly-funded vouchers are used for any of the four non-failing schools, what is the logic for moving one’s child?

Whether vouchers will make knowledge and learning better at private schools also is uncertain. That is because private schools do not have the same criteria for determining knowledge acquisition as public schools. There are many other concerns with this state constitutional point as well.

Point two: general

and uniform system of common schools

Clearly, public schools generally are not like public charter schools or private schools. Once again, this column is not to argue the merits, but one needs not dig too far to substantiate this statement.

Point three: tuition shall be without charge

The last amended version of House Bill 1003 limits each voucher to $4,500. In other words, apparently if a school costs more than $4,500 to attend then the recipient must come up with the balance. This seems to be a clear contradiction to a duty of the General Assembly as expressed in point three.

Point four: equally

open to all

This phrase seems to say that a school is subject to use of public funds must accommodate all students equally. In other words, if a parent has a publicly-funded voucher, the school that the parent chooses to have his or her child attend should accommodate that child – regular public schools must accommodate all children, equally.

I applaud the efforts to fix public education. However, the School Scholarships or “voucher bill,” at least as currently drafted, does not reconcile with the charge of the General Assembly. The public education system must be fixed but not by diverting funds from public schools. There are public schools that are working, and for that matter charter and private schools, so why not reform those public schools that are failing with that which is working in those schools? Address the barriers to such reformation rather than selling questionable legislative actions. Fix the problem to start saving our children, democracy, and republic rather than writing them off.

And so, at what cost does this bill pass?

Troy Crayston is an advocate of public education and an academic.

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