Education reform enthusiasts had their day at the Indiana Statehouse Monday, packing the rotunda with charter and private-school students bused in for the event.
Imagine the outrage if students from traditional public schools missed class for a political rally.
The brightly-colored T-shirts worn by many of the participants listed sponsors, including Americans for Prosperity, funded by the Koch brothers.
In addition to charter supporter Jalen Rose, the rally drew most of the state's top Republican officials, including Gov. Mike Pence, Senate President Pro Tem David Long and House Speaker Brian Bosma. Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, was not invited.
There were plenty of pronouncements of the value of school choice.
"Choice in education creates competition," Long said. "Competition creates a better product, a better outcome."
But the ed reform proponents still lack the data to back their assertions. More than a decade of charter school experience in Indiana suggests the "better outcome" is on the part of for-profit companies and real estate investors. Students at seven Ball State University-authorized charter schools slated for closing this year certainly haven't seen one.
What ed reform proponents do have on their side are all of the right talking points: Parent empowerment, school choice, students first. The fact that none actually exist in the corporate-driven, anti-union effort is beside the point.
Public education supporters will have their day at the Statehouse next week, when a rally is set for 2:30 p.m. March 19. The Indiana Coalition for Public Education is the organizer, but look for a large and enthusiastic crowd of public ed supporters, energized by Ritz's election and growing dissatisfaction with the so-called reform agenda.
Next Tuesday's effort is a final push against expansion of the state's voucher law, which is expected to cost at least $26 million.
One encouraging note for the voucher opponents: Sen. Luke Kenley apparently wasn't a party to the ed reform rally. The General Assembly's lead budget-maker has publicly questioned the cost of expanding the nation's most expansive voucher law and noted that it was sold two years ago as a means of allowing students in struggling schools to attend a private or parochial school.
Nor should voucher opponents be discouraged by the newly elected governor's participation. Pence might be squarely on the ed reform side now, but my 25 years of observing his political behavior tells me he will reconsider with a groundswell of support for public education and some strong arguments on its behalf.
Vic Smith, a retired Indiana educator and former Department of Education administrator, noted that Pence told Monday's crowd that 12 percent of Indiana high school seniors failed to graduate last year, "not mentioning the fact the 88 percent is the highest rate of four-year graduates Indiana has ever had."
But the governor's remarks were likely prepared for him. Public education supporters need to ensure he hears the other side of the story.
Pence will listen. He and his wife, Karen, already have visited public schools since he took office. He'll be in northeast Indiana tomorrow, visiting the impressive Four County Area Vocational Cooperative in Kendallville. Visits to public schools were rare in the previous administration.
Here's what Smith, a tireless advocate for public schools, has to say about the voucher bill:
House Bill 1003 is far worse than the original voucher bill passed two years ago. It ends the rationale that vouchers save the state money. It pays more state dollars for each elementary voucher, and it pays for vouchers for students who are already in private schools. These major changes mean direct new fiscal costs. A conservative estimate of new costs comes to $26 million:
1) Special education students currently in private schools become eligible for a voucher. The most recent figures from the IDOE website show 4211 such students. An estimated 75% meet the income limit of $85,000 for a family of four. Cost to taxpayers at LSA's estimate of $4083 on average for each voucher: $12.8 million.
2) The $4500 cap on the Grade 1-8 voucher is raised to $5000 the first year and to $5500 the second year. Cost to taxpayers according to LSA: $1.9 million at a minimum. A superintendent whose district only gets $5300 per student deeply opposes this change.
3) Children of veterans currently in private schools become eligible for a voucher. IDOE data shows 72,000 students currently in private schools that report enrollment to the department. An estimated 75% meet the income limit of $85,000 for a family of four. If just 3% of those students have a parent who is a veteran, the cost to taxpayers would be $6.6 million.
4) The preschool scholarship granting organizations in this bill would be able to give away $5 million in tax money as tax credits for donations to preschool tuition support.
The first three points, totaling $21 million, will come out of the tuition support budget in the funding formula. There is no separate line item for vouchers. This $21 million cost equals about one-sixth of the $132 million in new money for tuition support in the House budget for next year. The fourth point, tax credits, will reduce state revenues by $5 million.
These conservative estimates totaling over $26 million do not include the cost of vouchers provided for foster children currently in private schools or for kindergarten siblings of current voucher students.
I have heard voucher proponents on media reports saying they need to increase the Grade 1-8 voucher from $4500 to $5500 so they can get more out-of-state private school operators interested in coming into Indiana to build new schools. Have they given up on the schools of Indiana to the point where they need to incentivize out-of–state companies to come to Indiana to take over educating our children? This is clearly going in the wrong direction.