Tag Archives: small towns

Choice And Consequences

As regular readers of this blog know (and as yesterday’s post confirmed) I am not a fan of school vouchers. My concerns range from the philosophical to the practical, and the emerging research has confirmed most of the practical ones.

One consequence of voucher programs that is rarely, if ever, addressed (although, I will immodestly point out that I have addressed it): the unfair impact on small towns. Vouchers were first promoted as a way to allow poor kids to escape failing inner-city schools. (Ignore, for now, the fact that in Indiana, at least, most vouchers are being used by white kids who are leaving non-failing schools for religious ones…).

Most small towns don’t have enough students to support an alternative to the public school. Since most private schools accepting vouchers are in cities large enough to have inner-cities and multiple schools, and since they are receiving tax dollars paid by people throughout the state, small towns are effectively subsidizing private schools in more metropolitan areas.

Recently, I came across an illustration of this inequity. It’s a story from Stinesville, Indiana, a town I will readily admit I’d never heard of, although I was born (and will undoubtedly die) in Indiana.

With the largest private school voucher program in the country, and a charter sector that has grown “explosively,” Indiana is a poster state for the kinds of education policies pushed by President Trump and his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. But for small rural communities, the growth of school choice over the past six years is now forcing another choice: whether to close the public schools that are at their heart as competing schools pull students and money away. As vouchers and charters were sold to voters, the cost to small towns like Stinesville, IN, where officials voted this week to shutter the elementary school, was left out of the sales pitch.

The article reports on a school board meeting held just last month, at which the decision to close the school was the agenda item.

On this night, October 18, 2017, despite the sleepy look of the downtown street, there is nothing sleepy about school’s parking lot. It is packed. Inside, the gym is full of people, filling the folding chairs that have been set on the floor, and squeezing into the bleachers. Many are wearing red. There are parents with young children, teenagers, and plenty of older people too.

The superintendent explained why he advocated closing Stinesville Elementary School and busing the children to Ellettsville, population 6,600, six miles away: declining enrollment, declining funds and escalating costs.

So what does this have to do with vouchers? The article explains.

As the voucher and charter programs were explained and advertised as “school choice” to the public, one corollary fact was not included: Indiana residents might lose a choice that many of us have taken for granted for decades—the ability to send our kids to a local, well-resourced public school. The kind of school that serves lunch and participates in the federal school lunch program. The kind of school that provides transportation. The kind of school that has certified teachers and a library and is in a district obligated by law to accept all children in the attendance area, including those with profound special needs, and to provide them a free and appropriate public education….

Governor Daniels cut $300 million from the state budget for K-12 in 2009, during the recession. That money was never replaced even as the economy began to recover. Indiana voters wrote tax caps into the state constitution through a referendum in 2010, weakening the ability of local governments to provide services.

Since 2011, public dollars being diverted from the public school system to charters and vouchers have ballooned. By the end of 2015, according to an analysis done by the Legislative Services Agency at the request of Democratic state representative Ed Delaney, $920 million had been spent on charters and vouchers. From its inception in 2011 through the 2016-2017 school year, the voucher program cost Indiana taxpayers $516.5 million.

The article documents the dollars diverted to religious schools from Stinesville’s public school, which had been ranked as one of the state’s most effective, and references research on the negative effects suffered by small communities that lose their schools.

I notice that proponents of “school choice” never discuss these issues.


Road Trip

It’s been one of those days.

I got up early this morning because I had to drive 75 miles to give the “Good Government Day” speech I posted here a few days ago. Before I left, I tried accessing my email only to discover that my computer no longer recognized me, and wouldn’t allow me to log on. It was pouring down rain and I was out of gas; by the time I’d filled the tank, I looked like a sad, drowned rat. I got lost twice on my way to the small town where the high school was located. And it rained. And rained.

Good Government Day is a big deal at this high school, and everyone evidently attends: the Mayor and Deputy Mayor (a delightful woman I had previously met), members of the City Council, and a variety of elected and appointed officers. I was introduced to the Clerk-Treasurer, who seemed like a very nice woman–until she launched into her description of what was wrong with America and her explanation of why we are losing our “way of life.” I’m not entirely sure who she was alluding to when she referenced “people who are intentionally destroying our system,” but it was hard to miss her distaste for “people from South America” who have evidently had the nerve to invade even her small town. To say that I was taken aback would be an understatement.

I don’t believe this particular officeholder was typical of that small town. I chatted with several others–teachers, candidates for the City Council–who seemed far more representative of the virtues we like to attribute to small-town American life: they were welcoming, thoughtful and gracious. But I couldn’t help wondering, as I drove back through the driving rain, how many people share that woman’s worldview. How many see difference as a threat, rather than an opportunity to experience new perspectives? How many are secretly convinced that “they” are trying to destroy America?

And who do you suppose “they” are?