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School vouchers: Forced to choose?

School Choice Indiana, champions of the Indiana voucher entitlement program, features a curious article in its latest newsletter. It's the story of the Hazelbaker family of Anderson, Ind., and their decision to move from public school to a Christian school on a taxpayer-supported voucher.

Toni Hazelbaker says she was "increasingly unhappy" with the local public school corporation. "After the closing of several schools, many parents in our area were choosing to remove their children from the local public schools and send them to surrounding school corporations or private schools," she tells School Choice Indiana.

Here's the curious part:

"In the fall of 2010, I reluctantly enrolled my daughter in our local public school. I was so frustrated when she would come home and tell me that she had to sit on the floor during some classes because she didn't have a desk or even a chair. In other classes, she had to share textbooks with other students because there weren't enough to go around, and, more than once, she went without lunch because she couldn't make it through the lunch line before the dismissal bell rang."

So, Mrs. Hazelbaker wasn't unhappy with the academic quality of the schools; she was unhappy with overcrowding caused by school closings -- closings, by the way, that resulted from painful budget cuts forced by a state administration intent on implementing a voucher program.

The Indiana lawmakers who voted to support vouchers dropped their argument that students needed a way to escape failing schools when it became evident that some students were using a voucher to move to an F-rated private school. Now those legislators argue it's all about choice.

But here's the rub: If it's all about choice, why are they cutting support to public schools and reducing the number of schools, forcing Toni Hazelbaker to apply for a voucher? Wouldn't it have been more cost-effective to provide adequate state support for the Anderson schools so that students weren't forced to sit on the floor, share textbooks or miss lunch?

Perhaps legislators have convinced themselves they are doing the right thing by parents, but what they are doing is the bidding of forces intent on stripping public school teachers of their professional status.

Those same forces continue to claim that vouchers are returning "savings" to public schools. It's dishonest on their part and embarrassing to see Indiana politicians and reporters fall for the lie. Make no mistake: $38 million was diverted from public schools this past year to private schools. When the next public school closes as a result of budget cuts, perhaps the local legislator can explain to parents how it's all about choice.

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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