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Who benefits from school choice?

My Opinion
Who benefits from school choice?
Who benefits from school choice?
Dr. Robert Stwalley
Dr. Robert Stwalley, Guest Writer

The Republican supermajority in the Indiana General Assembly is currently attempting to prioritize private education benefiting fewer than 10% of students while underfunding its constitutional duty of providing a system of common school open and available to all.

It is public schools that educate more than 90% of Hoosier students and are the “schools of choice” when considering open enrollment data. Unfortunately, the legislature wants to change the rules again to expand private school choice options and benefit their profiteers. The absurdity of these proposals is that parents in Indiana have always had choice in schooling. The laws clearly state that children only need to be in a school. No one is forced to utilize any particular school.

This issue is really about who pays for the schooling. School choice advocates would have you believe that money should follow the child, because this platitude is simple and seems to make sense on the surface. However, this is completely untrue and detrimental to the overall concept of a tuition-free public school system. Taxes are collected from everyone to support government activities. Public schools are government entities designed to improve society by providing a practical education for the young citizens of tomorrow.

Everyone is better off with an educated populace. School funding does not support any individual child, but the overall public school system. Siphoning school funding away from public schools through vouchers and Educational Savings Accounts to support attendance in private schools diminishes the ability of our public schools to serve the remaining children, since expenses do not fall in proportion to attendance. Public funding should only fund public schools.

The argument put forward by the privatizers that our public schools are failing and in need of replacing with private, profit-driven schools is actually false. A recent peer-reviewed journal article (Waddington & Berends, 2018, doi: 10.1002/pam.22086) about Indiana’s voucher program conclusively demonstrates that while there is no statistical difference in language skills between public school and voucher-taking private school students, math skills decline and remain lower for years. The high-paying jobs of the future will require math skills, and these students are having the deck stacked against them. School choice advocates would have you believe that the free market in education ensures a better, high-quality education for children, when, in fact, the opposite is actually true.

The free market works on the profit motive. Business entities supplying goods and services desire to make as large a profit as possible from their operations. That means cutting expenses to a minimum in order to become the low-cost provider. Public entities work on standards-driven missions to provide goods and services for the benefit of everyone. Yes, we pay our instructors more, because we only hire qualified professionals. We spend significant time and effort on our curriculums, because we utilize experts to carefully determine and review what we teach. Our buildings are expensive, because we want our children safe, secure and well-cared for when they are under our supervision. When presented in this light, does anyone really want their children educated by the low-cost provider who is guided by the profit motive?

The Indiana General Assembly would have you believe that profit-driven, low-cost educational providers are actually best for everyone. They are currently attempting to double-down on vouchers through a mechanism called Educational Savings Accounts. These are essentially open spending debit cards given to parents who leave public schools and opt-in to the program for their private “educational expenses.” Vouchers and ESAs are subject to less regulation, accountability and transparency than public school spending. Audits of ESAs in other states that have tried these programs routinely uncover significant abuse in which the children are the ultimate losers when their educational funding is spent by parents for non-educational purposes.

The legislature has additionally proposed raising the income limits to qualify for the existing school voucher program to levels incorporating families that can only be described as “well-off” or “wealthy,” completely undermining their original talking point of helping poor families escape “failing” schools.

This proposal will not improve the education of Indiana’s children. It will not save the state any money, and it is fiscally irresponsible. As a society, it is in everyone’s best interest to maintain and support a strong and robust public school system for all families.

Please contact your legislator and encourage them to vote “no” on House Bill 1005.

Editor’s note: Dr. Robert Stwalley is resident of the Indiana School Board Association and the Lafayette School Corp. Board of Trustees, with nearly 20 years experience in public school policy and guidance.