Diverse — and Outspoken — Views On School Vouchers
July 29, 2013 — TheStatehouseFile.com
John Krull, executive editor, TheStatehouseFile.com, is also host of “No Limits,” heard Thursdays at noon on 89.1 FM The Lakeshore. Here, he offers a commentary on last week’s lively discussion (for some) about school vouchers.
INDIANAPOLIS – Karinya Chrisler looks as if she’s wandered into an asylum that’s in full meltdown.
Chrisler, a school voucher parent, is a guest on the radio show I host. We’re talking about vouchers.
The other guests are Robert Enlow, president of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, and Mark Giaquinta, a Fort Wayne Community School Board member. And they’re doing most of the talking.
Enlow says that vouchers will improve education by increasing standards of accountability and more fully engaging parents in their children’s education. Giaquinta says that vouchers divert needed resources from public schools that already are underfunded and will route tax dollars to religious institutions in a way that flouts the spirit – if not the letter – of both the Indiana and U.S. constitutions.
In short, they’re having the same argument about vouchers that we’ve been having in Indiana and America for decades.
At one point, when Enlow and Giaquinta are talking at the same time, I look over at Chrisler. She rolls her eyes. If there was a word balloon over her head, it would read: “What am I doing here?”
It’s easy to share her pain.
As is the case with many of the most divisive arguments we have in this state and country right now, both sides in the voucher debate have valid points to make. Both sides have good intentions. And both sides have weak spots in their arguments that they would like to gloss over – and have the rest of us overlook.
It’s clear listening to both Enlow and Giaquinta that they both care a lot about kids, about education and about this state. They both want what’s best for students and schools. And they both have trouble granting that the other guy might have a point.
Enlow and voucher advocates argue that schools will get better as competition is introduced into the system. By empowering parents and giving them a choice, a voucher system allows those parents to “shop” for the best education for their children – and forces schools to compete as businesses would for students.
It’s a powerful argument and, in some places with some people, it likely will work. The places where it won’t work are rural and isolated communities where no meaningful school “choices” exist. The people it won’t work for are the parents who don’t have the time or means to transport their children to and from a distant school, even if it is, in theory, a better “choice.”
That means that we’ll be funding two systems of education – one for the people who have the means and opportunity to exercise their choices and one for those who don’t.
Giaquinta and voucher opponents leap on that point and argue that what we’re creating with a voucher system is a two-tiered educational structure. They point out that many students now are leaving schools with strong grades from the state to attend religious schools that are receiving failing grades. They argue that the voucher is just a way to launder state money so that it can support religious instruction.
But here’s the thing: If a voucher is a form of money laundering, it is an effective one. The Indiana Supreme Court has ruled, unanimously, that once the money flows back to the parent in the form of the voucher, the constitutional prohibition against devoting state funds to support religious activity doesn’t apply.
In other words, at the moment, vouchers are legal – and likely to stay that way for a while.
That means, at the very least, we’re going to find out if they work. And that will be a good thing, because it may be the only way we can put this increasingly circular argument behind us.
There are signs, though, that voucher advocates want to evade being judged by that standard. Enlow talks during the broadcast about the value of vouchers in preserving parents’ rights, but one caller pounces upon that point. The caller argues that, while it’s nice for parents to have choices, taxpayers shouldn’t have to subsidize those choices unless they lead to increased performance in the schools – and thus add benefit to the community.
In school, we’d call this a test – a chance for vouchers (and their advocates) to prove that they work.
Pencils ready. The exam is about to begin.