Pence’s ‘school choice’ in Indiana

Asked a simple question Tuesday about race in America, Vice President Mike Pence deflected to a soliloquy about all the Trump administration has done for African Americans, including the way it has “stood strong for school choice.”

Indiana state flagPence was following the script laid out by the president, who said that school choice is “the civil rights (issue) of all time in this country.”

How does that look from Indiana, where Pence was governor for four years before he hitched his wagon to Trump’s star? Frankly, not so good.

The centerpiece of school choice in Indiana is the state’s private school voucher program, the largest and most generous in the country. Started in 2011, it was sold as a way to give low-income families better educational options.

But under Pence, it morphed into a massive subsidy for religious education and a new entitlement for mostly white, middle-class families who shun public schools.

In nine years, the state has spent more than $1 billion on vouchers to help pay tuition at over 300 private schools, nearly all of them religious schools. The program’s cost in 2019-20 was $172.8 million for 36,000 students.

Much of the benefit goes to families that don’t need it. Under Indiana’s generous eligibility guidelines, 7.1% of voucher families last year earned over $100,000, nearly twice Indiana’s median household income.

Only 11.8% of voucher students in 2019-20 identified as African American, an unusually low percentage for a program that is pervasive in urban areas.

The program was supposed to give students an academic boost. It doesn’t. Studies by researchers at the universities of Kentucky and Notre Dame found that Hoosier students who used vouchers to transfer from public to private schools fell significantly behind in math performance, and they stayed behind.

But arguably the worst feature of Indiana’s voucher program is that it promotes discrimination, in both employment and enrollment.

Counselors and teachers at Indianapolis Catholic schools that receive voucher funding were fired when supervisors learned they were in same-sex marriages. And some voucher-supported evangelical schools openly discriminate by sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, religion and other factors.

The other component of school choice, charter schools, came to Indiana in 2002, well before Pence’s time in state government. Some Indiana charter schools, especially those authorized by the Indianapolis mayor’s office, have received high marks for performance, but others have struggled. Overall, students in charter schools have performed about the same as students in traditional public schools.

What’s certain is that the growth of charter schools has contributed to the loss of students and funding for public school districts. In Gary, for example, more students now attend charter schools than attend Gary Community Schools. The Gary school system was taken over by the state for financial problems.

More troubling was the fast growth of low-performing virtual charter schools, a trend that took off while Pence was governor. For years, the state kept hands off, even though the schools recorded low test scores and graduated few students. Finally, an audit of two virtual schools found they overbilled the state by $68 million and made $85.7 million in questionable payments to related parties.

The claim by Pence and Trump that school choice is a civil rights issue recalls the statement by Arnie Duncan, President Barack Obama’s secretary of education, that education was the civil rights issue of our time. It wasn’t then, and it’s certainly not now, when the Trump administration is suppressing voting rights and the streets are filled protests of police killings of Black men and women.

The civil rights issue of this era, and every era, is civil rights. We can’t let Pence and Trump get away with changing the subject.

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