Latest voucher gimmick: Education Savings Accounts

Give Indiana Republican legislators points for resourcefulness. They keep finding new ways to undermine public schools by expanding the state’s school voucher program. The latest, and arguably the most egregious, is the creation of Education Savings Accounts, state-funded accounts to pay for private schooling and other expenses.

Senate Bill 534, scheduled to be considered today by the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, would create ESAs for the families of special-needs students who choose not to attend public school and don’t receive a private-school voucher.

The state would fund the ESAs with money that would otherwise go to the public schools where the students would be eligible to enroll — typically about $6,000 per student but potentially quite a bit more for some special-needs students. Then the students’ families could decide where to spend the money: private school tuition, tutoring, online courses, and other services from providers approved by the State Board of Education.

SB 534 would cost the state between $144 million and $206 million a year, according to a fiscal impact statement from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. This is at a time when legislators are arguing about whether Indiana can afford $10 million to expand a popular  pre-kindergarten program.

Unlike with Indiana’s existing voucher program, there’s no income requirement for qualifying for the proposed Education Savings Accounts. So if Joe Billionaire has a special-needs child and wants to send the child to a private school, we the taxpayers would providing funding.

As Vic Smith of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education writes, the legislation is right out of the late economist Milton Friedman’s plan “to take public schools out of our society and leave education to a marketplace of private schools, all funded by the taxpayers but without government oversight.”

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Pre-K and vouchers: not a good combination

Excuse the language, but Indiana House Republicans served up a classic shit sandwich with House Bill 1004, their legislation to expand Indiana’s pre-kindergarten pilot program. Stuffed inside the bill is language that would provide yet another route for students to become eligible for the state’s school voucher program.

Under the legislation, students who participate in the pre-K program for low-income families would become eligible for a voucher to help pay private school tuition. They would stay eligible as long as their family income continued to meet the program’s requirements.

The House Education Committee approved the bill last week on a party-line vote, sending it to the full House. The lead author is Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, who chairs the education panel.

Seen as pure politics, HB 1004 of a slick move. Democrats have pushed for years to expand state support for pre-K. But as backers of public schools, they oppose vouchers. They’re in the awkward position of having to vote against one of their long-time priorities.

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Voucher programs go beyond what court approved

The U.S. Supreme Court gave the green light to school vouchers in the 2002 case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, clearing the way for states to create programs that provide public funding for religious schools.

But the Zelman decision addressed a specific program that served children from poor families in Cleveland. And the voucher programs that have proliferated in the past 15 years look very different and serve different purposes from the local Cleveland program.

United States Supreme Court Building

United States Supreme Court Building

The court ruled 5-4 that the Cleveland voucher program didn’t constitute a state endorsement of religion – and thus a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment – because the tuition vouchers went to the students’ parents, who then directed the funding to the schools they chose.

Indiana Chief Justice Brent Dickson relied on similar reasoning in Meredith v. Pence, the March 2013 state Supreme Court ruling that found Indiana’s voucher program did not violate the state constitution’s ban on state funding for religious organizations.

But some of the justifications the Supreme Court cited for supporting vouchers in Zelman don’t apply to many of the two dozen or so voucher programs that now operate in 15 states, with more likely to come.

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Study confirms voucher programs discriminate

Research led by an Indiana University professor confirms what school voucher critics have long argued: Voucher programs receive public funding yet discriminate on the basis of religion, disability status, sexual orientation and possibly other factors.

The finding is especially timely as President Donald Trump and his designee to serve as secretary of education, Michigan school-choice activist Betsy DeVos, have indicated they will use federal clout and money to push states to expand voucher programs.

“At the time we did the study, we had no idea it would be so relevant,” said Suzanne Eckes, professor in the IU School of Education and the lead author of the research paper. “People are starting to think about these questions, and the topic has not been widely addressed in research.”

The study, “Dollars to Discriminate: The (Un)intended Consequences of School Vouchers,” was published last summer in the Peabody Journal of Education. Co-authors are Julie Mead, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Jessica Ulm, a doctoral student at IU.

The researchers examined 25 programs in 15 states and Washington, D.C., that provide public funding for private K-12 schools, including traditional tuition voucher programs and voucher-like programs called education savings accounts. Indiana is one of seven states with a statewide voucher program. Other programs are limited to cities (Milwaukee, Cleveland) or special-needs students.

The authors say legislators who authorized the programs neglected to write policies that provide equal access for students and avoid discriminating against marginalized groups.

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Finding hope for schools in women’s marches

Education may not have been a central focus for Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington and the supportive marches and rallies across the country, but neither was it missing from the agenda.

I know for a fact that many of the people who gathered at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis were teachers, parents and other avid supporters of public education. And some of the best signs at the marches mocked Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of education, for her comment about schools needing guns to protect children from grizzly bears.

Sign at the Indiana Statehouse rallyThe solidarity exhibited at the marches and rallies is important, because it’s going to take more than education advocates to push back against the school privatization agenda that Trump and DeVos apparently plan to push. People who believe in justice for women, children, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people and others will have to work together for the next four years and beyond.

Trump said during the campaign that he wants to spent $20 billion in federal funds for school vouchers, which pay tuition for students to attend private schools, including religious schools. DeVos, a Michigan billionaire and Republican activist, has long pushed for vouchers and religious schools and fought against teachers’ unions and even accountability for charter schools.

Democratic senators made a good start at DeVos’ confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. Al Franken exposed that the nominee didn’t seem to know the difference between proficiency and growth on standardized tests. Tim Kaine and Patty Murray revealed her lack of familiarity with federal civil rights law protecting students with disabilities. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders hammered her inexperience with higher education and student loans.

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Education secretary nominee backed senator’s campaign

The early 20th century writer and activist Upton Sinclair famously said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

If he was right, it may be hard to make Indiana’s new Republican senator, Todd Young, understand the danger to public education posed by Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s choice to be secretary of education.

money-coinsDeVos and her family contributed $48,600 to Young’s campaign last year, helping him win election against Democratic former Sen. Evan Bayh. She and several relatives – her husband, father-in-law, mother-in-law, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law – appear to have each given the maximum $5,400 in 2016.

Young sits on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is scheduled to hear testimony on DeVos’ nomination today and will vote on whether to recommend her confirmation.

The DeVos family’s direct contributions to Young’s campaign were a pittance for an election in which more than $30 million was spent by the two sides. Young will no doubt say they won’t be a factor in his vote.

But the family also gave millions of dollars in 2016 to GOP and conservative political action committees, including the National Republican Committee, the Senate Leadership Fund and American Crossroads. Some of those PACs spent millions on nasty political ads trashing Bayh and painting him as a flaming liberal (a joke for Hoosiers who remember his tenure as governor and senator).

The DeVoses have also given generously to four other Republicans on the HELP Committee, according to Federal Election Commission filings: $70,200 to Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, $49,900 to Tim Scott of South Carolina and $43,200 each to Richard Burr of North Carolina and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Continue reading

Bending toward justice

This is a good time to remember that, yes, the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it can be excruciatingly long.

That’s a slightly twisted version of an aphorism that’s most strongly associated with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate today. Around the country, many schools are closed for the holiday. Others are in session, but hopefully teachers are teaching about King’s life and legacy.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Library of Congress photo

And hopefully schools everywhere are focusing their history lessons not just on King but on the civil rights struggle, and not only frontline leaders like King and Rep. John Lewis but strategists like Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin and fearless combatants like Fannie Lou Hamer and Vernon Dahmer. (Look them up!).

The effort to mark King’s birthday as a national holiday began soon after he was murdered in April 1968. Even that took 15 years to succeed; the arc was long. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill that made the third Monday in January a federal holiday memorializing King. Authors of the bill were Republican Jack Kemp of New York state and Democrat Katie Hall of Gary, Ind.

Indiana University professor Bill Wiggins, who died last month, placed the quest for a King holiday in a much longer history of black freedom holidays, including Emancipation Proclamation anniversaries and Juneteenth, which marks when news of the end of the Civil War reached Galveston, Texas. Continue reading