Hats off to State Rep. Dan Forestal. Responding to a flap over Roncalli High School’s threat to fire a popular guidance counselor, the Indianapolis Democrat said Wednesday that he will introduce legislation to outlaw discrimination by private schools that receive voucher funding from the state.
There’s not much chance the proposal will become law, but it could spark debate about one of the most offensive aspect of Indiana’s voucher program: Schools that receive millions of dollars in state funding are free to discriminate in employment and in the enrollment of students.
The controversy at Roncalli, a Catholic high school in Indianapolis, involves Shelly Fitzgerald, a longtime counselor who was placed on paid leave after school and church officials learned she had been married to a woman since 2014. She told news media that school officials said she could dissolve her marriage, resign, be fired or keep quiet and leave her job at the end of the year.
Roncalli students have received almost $6 million in state tuition vouchers in the past four years, according to reports from the Indiana Department of Education.
Students and parents have rallied around Fitzgerald, and one Roncalli board member, former Indiana Democratic Party chairman Dan Parker, resigned Wednesday. Forestal, a Roncalli alumnus, said he will file legislation for the 2019 session to prohibit schools that receive vouchers from discriminating because of sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The actions of Roncalli High School have unfolded in a manner that is contrary to the ideals I learned during my time there,” Forestal said in a statement. “We were taught to love and accept everyone regardless of our differences.”
Rep. Robert Behning, the Indianapolis Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, said he was aware of the proposed legislation but didn’t yet know if he would allow it to be discussed.
Behning, the primary author of Indiana’s voucher law, said in a statement that the Roncalli incident “is ultimately a contract issue and should be handled within the school and not at the state level.” He took issue with the idea that private schools are receiving state funding, saying the vouchers are directed to parents, not the schools.
Indiana’s voucher program started in 2011 and expanded quickly, providing multiple ways for low- and moderate-income families to receive vouchers for private school tuition. Nearly all of the 300-plus participating schools are religious schools. The state spent $154 million on vouchers in 2017-18.
When it comes to enrolling students, voucher schools can’t discriminate by race, color or national origin. But they can – and many do – discriminate on sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and religion, according to a 2016 study co-authored by Indiana University education professor Suzanne Eckes.
There is some academic accountability in Indiana for private schools that accept vouchers. They must administer standardized tests and are subject to the state’s A-to-F grading system. Schools that get consecutive D’s or F’s are supposed to lose the ability to add additional voucher students. But they can ask the state to waive the rule, and the State Board of Education has handed out waivers like candy.
Other than that, state law makes it clear that vouchers come with very few strings attached. It says the state “may not in any way regulate” schools that enroll voucher students, including “regulation of curriculum content, religious instruction or activities, classroom teaching, teacher and staff hiring requirements, and other activities carried out by the eligible school.”
None of this has been secret, yet the Roncalli situation has struck a chord, possibly because so many of the school’s students, teachers and alumni believe in the school but are deeply hurt that it would reject a beloved counselor for marrying the person she loves. If Fitzgerald and her supporters in the school, the community and the legislature can generate an honest discussion about whether state policy should sanction and promote discrimination, they will have done Indiana a huge favor.