I have posted previously–several times– about the Indiana legislature’s misguided support for school vouchers. I won’t repeat those criticisms here–those of you who are regular readers, or who follow education policy, know the score. I’ll just remind you that there’s absolutely no evidence that the schools receiving vouchers do a better job than the public schools they are bleeding of desperately needed resources, and because most of the schools that accept vouchers are religious, voucher programs deepen social and civic divisions.
The truth is, vouchers are basically a First Amendment work-around allowing public funds to flow to religious schools. The Courts have accepted the pathetically obvious pretense that the funds go to parents rather than to religious institutions, so hey! no Church/State violation.
In deep Red Indiana–which has the country’s most expansive voucher program–arguments against school vouchers have fallen on the same deaf ears that characterize other policy debates in the World’s Worst Legislature. Our rural Republican super-majority wants more guns, more women forced to give birth, and more kids “educated” in fundamentalist religious schools.
But maybe–just maybe–those of us who support public education have overlooked a messaging opportunity. Rather than pointing to research supporting the numerous criticisms of voucher programs, perhaps we need to take a lesson from Oklahoma.
As the linked article from The Brookings Institution recently reported,
Oklahoma is a deep-red state. In 2020, Donald Trump won the state with nearly two thirds of the vote. The state’s governor, both U.S. senators, and all five U.S. House members are Republicans. And the GOP holds about 80% of the seats in both chambers of the state legislature. So, when Governor Kevin Stitt and Oklahoma Senate leader Greg Treat declared a statewide school voucher bill a major priority for the 2022 legislative session, it might have seemed that its enactment would be a foregone conclusion. But when the legislature adjourned at the end of May, the voucher bill had failed by a vote of 24-22 in the Oklahoma Senate—and hadn’t even been called up for a vote in the Oklahoma House.
How could this happen? How could a bill supported by the Republican governor and introduced by the Oklahoma Senate leader fail to achieve a majority in a chamber where the GOP held more than three fourths of the seats? And why didn’t it even get to the floor of the Oklahoma House?
It turns out that in Oklahoma, like in Indiana, lawmakers don’t just divide along partisan lines. Lawmakers of the same party who represent urban districts will also disagree with those in their party who represent rural areas. (In deeply gerrymandered Indiana, we’re talking about Republicans.)
That urban/rural division was what played out in Oklahoma.
It turns out that it isn’t just city schools that are under-resourced. A large number of rural school districts struggle financially, and have trouble recruiting teachers. More significantly, in Indiana as in Oklahoma, there also aren’t many educational options in rural parts of the state, a situation that limits the appeal of voucher legislation to families in those areas.
When voucher proponents talk about “school choice,” they inevitably point to schools in the poorer precincts of cities. How often have we been told that vouchers would allow poor children “trapped” in under-performing schools to “escape” to a presumably available and superior private or parochial school?
The thing is, those options–good, bad or indifferent–simply don’t exist in most of the small towns scattered through rural America. Those towns–most of which have been losing population for a long time–don’t produce enough children of school age to support alternative institutions. That may be one reason Indiana allowed its vouchers to be used at “virtual” online schools. (It appears that the state got massively ripped off by scammers pretending to be online educators…but our legislators never learn…)
Maybe the pitch we need to make to all those legislators in the Statehouse who represent Indiana’s rural areas is something along the lines of “Do you know that school vouchers are really a way to shift tax dollars from your constituents to those pointy-headed liberals and “diverse” folks who live in the cities? Indiana’s voucher program is taking money from the good folks who live in places like Roachdale and Pine Village and sending those dollars to folks in Indianapolis and South Bend and other urban areas.”
That argument has the virtue of being true. Of course, all the other criticisms of vouchers are also demonstrably true, and those criticisms haven’t made a dent.
Maybe, however, “the city folks are stealing your money” would be more effective, given the depth of Indiana’s rural/urban divide.
Worth a try…..