Mitch Daniels and Tony Bennett sold Indiana’s voucher program with the argument that children shouldn’t be stuck in failing schools because their parents can’t afford anything better – that children have a right to a good education “regardless of background, income or zip code.”
But the changes now being pushed by Gov. Mike Pence and some legislators suggest the program has nothing to do with social justice. They want to award vouchers to students who have never enrolled in public schools – and in some cases, to families that clearly don’t need help paying private school tuition.
Vic Smith of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education isn’t exaggerating when he writes that these proposals are steps toward a universal voucher system, “a goal that would eventually undermine and marginalize the non-partisan, non-sectarian public schools that for over a hundred years have brought people from all walks of life together in our communities and have undergirded our democracy with citizenship education and our economy with college and career readiness.”
The first test is Senate Bill 184, scheduled for a vote today in the Senate Education and Career Development Committee. It would provide vouchers to siblings of previous voucher students, even if they haven’t met the current requirement of first attending public schools.
The Indiana voucher program, billed as the nation’s most extensive when it was adopted in 2011, provides public funding for low and moderate-income families to send their children to private schools, most of which are religious schools. The family income cutoff is 277 percent of the federal poverty level – about $67,000 for a family of four.
Pence, in his State of the State address, said that’s not enough of a handout and the state should go further. He said it would be a “good start” to: 1) eliminate the requirement that students spend a year in a public school to qualify; and 2) award vouchers to children with special needs, children in foster care and children from military families regardless of family income.
House Bill 1003 partially matches Pence’s proposal. Sponsored by Indianapolis Republican Robert Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, it would give vouchers to special-needs children, foster children and the children of both active-duty and former military personnel, without any income requirement. In other words, if you’ve ever spent time in the military, taxpayers will subsidize your child’s private school tuition, period.
Like SB 184, Behning’s bill would provide vouchers on demand to siblings of current voucher students. It would let students keep their vouchers once they qualify, even if their family income rises to 300 percent of the threshold for reduced-price school lunches. For a family of four, that’s $129,000 a year – nearly three times the state’s median household income.
This is very different from the concept that then-Gov. Daniels and then-Superintendent Bennett described when they got lawmakers to approve the voucher program. Daniels said on several occasions that it was only fair to expect students to attend public schools for a year before qualifying for a voucher – that public schools should get a chance to do right before the state helps families opt for private schools.
Bennett, now the Florida commissioner of education, told the Indianapolis Star’s Scott Elliott that his support for vouchers is “really about social justice.” He said poor parents should have the same opportunity to choose their kids’ schools that he and his wife would have.
But Pence, Behning and House Speaker Brian Bosma are moving toward straight-up taxpayer funding of private and religious education on equal footing with public schools – with the significant difference that public schools must serve all students while voucher-funded private schools may reject students on the basis of religion, disability, gender, IQ, previous school performance or whether they’re a good “fit.”
That’s not the deal that Daniels and Bennett were selling in 2011. Or is it?