Education advocates in Indiana have a unique perspective on the radical school-choice policies that Betsy DeVos is promoting as U.S. secretary of education, said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association.
Hoosiers have seen how a school voucher program that was sold as a way to help poor children escape “failing” schools can evolve into something quite different: an entitlement for middle-class parents to send their children to religious schools at public expense.
“In Indiana, the voucher program has really changed,” Meredith said in a phone interview. “There is now no cap on the number of vouchers. Families with a really decent income can qualify. And the data are telling us that most kids getting vouchers are already in private schools, or that was the family’s plan all along.”
DeVos came to Indianapolis Monday to speak at a policy summit of the American Federation of Children, the pro-voucher advocacy group that she formerly chaired. She was expected to unveil the Trump administration’s school-choice proposal but offered few details.
She did say it would be “the most ambitious expansion of school choice in our nation’s history.” She said states would be able to opt out of the expansion, but it would be “a terrible mistake” to do so. She derided voucher opponents as “flat-earthers” who are trying to keep education in “the Stone Age.”
Across the street from the hotel where DeVos spoke, public-school advocates organized by Indiana teachers’ unions rallied in opposition. (You can watch a video of the rally/news conference posted at 5:31 p.m. Monday on the ISTA Facebook page). They argued that vouchers divert money from public schools to private schools that aren’t accountable to the public and can refuse to enroll children they don’t want.
“We are here to say, Betsy Devos, we don’t want you in our community,” Ramon Batts, education chair of The Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis. “We know best because we have been here. We’ve been in our public schools. We have graduated from our public schools. We are the public, and Betsy DeVos does not represent the public.”
Batts, founder and senior pastor of Change and Restoration Community Baptist Church, said private schools “have a right to exist, but they do not have a right to exist on the backs of public schools.”
Kristina Frey is the mother of a third-grader at a north-side Indianapolis neighborhood public school where three of four children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
“We oppose vouchers because vouchers are bad for children, period,” she said at the rally. “They hurt my children and they hurt the community’s children. Why? Because they lead to lower achievement and more segregated schools, and more and more studies are bearing this out.”
Frey said public funding should go to schools that serve all children. “It’s not about my finding the perfect school for my daughter based on what some people say,” she said. “It’s about keeping all our schools strong for all of our students, so the communities we call home can all stay strong.”
Several speakers said DeVos’ complete lack of experience with public schools makes her uniquely unqualified to run the U.S. Department of Education. Meredith, the teachers’ union president, said DeVos’ nomination and contested confirmation energized supporters of public education and triggered new levels of activism. The ISTA, for example, has launched a new “I Choose Public Schools” website as a tool for outreach and advocacy.
“I think people were really deflated and discouraged after the general election,” Meredith said. “But it appears to me that people didn’t sit on the sidelines licking their wounds. Betsy DeVos has certainly ignited that energy, and there seems to be a larger community of activists getting involved.”