Indiana lags in education. Don’t blame history.

James Briggs of the Indianapolis Star convincingly connects Indiana’s economic malaise with its status as “one of the worst states in American for educational attainment” in an excellent column published this month.

But I think the column oversimplifies when it suggests Indiana’s current failings are embedded in the state’s history. “The story is always more complicated when we move to history,” the Indiana historian James Madison told me.

Caleb Mills advocated for public education in a series of influential essays in the 1800s. (Digital image © 2005 Indiana Historical Society. All Rights Reserved. Source: W. H. Bass Photo Company Collection).

I reached out to Madison to ask about the claim, attributed to the writer and consultant Aaron Renn, that Indiana “has always been poorly educated” due to “the cultural influences of large Quaker and southern-born populations at the time of Indiana’s founding.”

The Quakers? “I don’t know any basis for that statement,” said Madison, the Thomas and Kathryn Miller professor emeritus of history at Indiana University.Quite the contrary, Quakers tended to be more enthusiastic about education.”

Quakers also were pioneer Indiana’s most active abolitionists and operated some of the first schools open to African American children. “That’s indicative of the Quaker commitment to the general welfare,” Madison said.

Renn is right that much of Indiana’s early population was southern-born. All but nine of the 43 delegates to the state’s first constitutional convention previously lived in the South, Madison writes in “Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana.” And formal education was plain scarce in backwoods Indiana. Abraham Lincoln, who lived in the state from age 7 to 21, attended school for less than 12 months. In 1840, Indiana recorded the highest rate of illiteracy north of the Ohio River, Madison said.

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What’s wrong with school choice?

Columnist Dan Carpenter answers the question in Sunday’s Indianapolis Star: Vouchers, charter schools, parent trigger laws and the like “send a counter-educational message that one doesn’t have to work to improve a school; just go buy a new one.”

Another way to put it is this: Education isn’t a commodity. It’s not a product that you shop for and buy, after doing a little research on Consumer Reports. Education is, for students, parents and the public, a transaction: What you get out of it is related to what you put into it.

School choice means parents don’t have a real do-or-die stake in their children’s schools, or the public school systems that the schools are part of. If they don’t like the way the school is being run, if they’re unhappy with a teacher or a textbook, they can go elsewhere. The grass is greener … somewhere.

More importantly, they don’t have a stake in the schools attended by their neighbors’ children – or by the kids from across town. If everyone can opt out, if everyone is encouraged to shop around for a better deal, then no parent or citizen has to do the hard, demanding work of making sure the public schools do what’s best for all students.

Caleb Mills, regarded as the father of public education in Indiana, said as much more than 160 years ago. In one of his annual letters to the state legislature, he explained why he advocated “common schools” Continue reading

School vouchers and the Indiana Constitution: What would the framers say?

Article 1, Section 6 of the Indiana Constitution says, simply, “No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.”

Supporters of Indiana’s school voucher program insist that doesn’t mean the state can’t fund religion. Vouchers are state funds, after all; and most of the schools getting them are religious institutions. Some law professors and school-law experts say the Indiana Supreme Court is likely to declare the voucher program acceptable.

But it seems unlikely that the men who drafted and approved Indiana’s constitution would agree. Here’s their explanation for what they were trying to do, as recorded in the journal of the 1850-51 constitutional convention:

“ … to secure the rights of conscience and prevent the imposition, on the citizen, of any tax to support any ministry Continue reading