A five-member panel Wednesday night brought varying perspectives to the school voucher debate, and the participants interacted with an engaged audience that had more questions than time allowed.
More than 50 people filled an auditorium at Ivy Tech Community College's Fort Wayne campus for the forum presented by the HuffPost in partnership with The Journal Gazette. It lasted about 90 minutes and was part of the HuffPost's Listen to America bus tour – a 25-city tour devoted to listening to the concerns of people across the country.
Panelists were Mark Berends of the Center for Research on Educational Opportunity at University of Notre Dame; Anne Duff, a parent and Fort Wayne Community Schools board member; Beth Bearman, a local parent who has used vouchers to help pay for her children's educations; Laurie Johnson, program chair for education at Ivy Tech; and Karen Francisco, The Journal Gazette's Perspective page editor.
Rebecca Klein of the HuffPost served as moderator.
Since 2011, Indiana's voucher program, which could be a guide for a national initiative, has allowed parents meeting income guidelines to use government money to educate their children outside public schools.
Duff criticized voucher schools' lack of transparency, the money it diverts from public education and for creating a system of the haves and the have-nots. She commended FWCS for its quality education.
“There's something for everybody in each of those schools,” she said.
Not necessarily, Bearman said, offering her story. A child with special needs prompted her family to seek nonpublic education, she said, and that child's needs are now met.
“I loved Fort Wayne Community,” she said. “... It just wasn't right for us.”
Audience member Kathy Zoucha, a special education teacher, asked Bearman what she would have done if her children hadn't been accepted by their chosen school.
That happens, Zoucha said, “and that is an issue we need to address in this state.”
An audience member said smaller class sizes attracted his family to nonpublic schools. Duff said FWCS would like to have the funding to improve student-teacher ratios.
It is difficult to cut expenses, Duff said, even if the district were to lose 100 students to vouchers, because the loss likely wouldn't be concentrated in one grade level or school to justify teacher reductions or other cost-saving efforts.
There is never a one-size-fits-all in education, Johnson said, describing herself as an advocate for high-quality education.
Public schools are at a greater disadvantage because, she said, they are saddled with students who come to school with “so much baggage.” It begs the question of how to best serve children, she said.
“It's bigger than this question we're discussing tonight,” she said.
Berends, who has researched the voucher program, said more information is needed about such areas as voucher schools' curriculum, instruction and leadership to better understand its effects. Information about graduates and their post-secondary pursuits are also important to know, he said.
“We need further experimentation on a smaller scale,” he said.
Although U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Donald Trump have touted a historic education choice proposal, Berends was skeptical that a national debate on the matter is imminent. “I think it's not going to happen,” he said, citing the recent inaction of Congress. But, he added, “Prove me wrong.”
It shouldn't be a federal decision, Johnson said, explaining the Constitution gives that power to the states.