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Vote on vouchers? Yes, please

In a commentary published in today's Journal Gazette, the director of the Lutheran Schools Partnership takes issue with an editorial critical of Indiana's voucher program.

One statement should not go unchallenged: "Our state has already voted to support school choice," writes Mark Muehl.

Not true. Indiana voters have never been given the opportunity to vote on school choice. They were asked in a referendum if they wanted to cap property taxes. Now there's a push to ask them if they want to ban same-sex marriage. But they've never been asked if they support school choice.

Some voters might have been expressing an opinion of school choice when they voted to elect Glenda Ritz as superintendent of public instruction, of course. Her opponent was Tony Bennett, the incumbent superintendent who was the face of school choice in Indiana (and elsewhere) until he lost handily to Ritz.

It would be a stretch to say voters were casting ballots in support of school choice when they elected pro-voucher Gov. Mike Pence, because John Gregg and the Democratic Party failed to make vouchers an issue in the November gubernatorial election. Pence's campaign focused on jobs, not school choice.

Likewise, Republican candidates for the General Assembly were careful to downplay the issue, with many incumbents insisting they wanted to give the so-called education reform agenda a chance to prove its effectiveness before making any more changes. Many of those lawmakers – Reps. Kathy Heuer, Dan Leonard, Matt Lehman, to name a few – quickly reversed themselves once they were reelected, voting to expand the voucher program through House Bill 1003.

Now that the Indiana Supreme Court has upheld the law creating Indiana's disingenuously named Choice Scholarship Program, Hoosiers who don't understand the difference between the judicial and legislative branches or those who want to mislead voters will proclaim the voucher program sound and successful. But the court's decision says nothing of the sort, with Chief Justice Brent Dickson explicitly noting that it was a constitutional question, not a ruling on the "desirability and efficacy of school choice."

The Lutheran schools official is on to something, however. How about granting Indiana voters the right to weigh in? Do they want to financially support two separate systems of schools – one required to accept all students and the other allowed to pick and choose students?

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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