Indiana’s Legislature Doesn’t Get It

I often post about education, about which I have some firm convictions. I began my professional life as a high school English teacher, and ended it with 21 years as a college professor. Now that I am an elderly retiree, my focus has narrowed to a simple question: What is education and why does Indiana do so badly at it? (Among other deficits, we rank 43rd among the states in the percentage of our population with a bachelor’s degree.)

Most of us have come across the concept of Occam’s Razor–the principle that the simplest answer is usually the right one–and I’ve concluded that the answer to why Indiana’s legislature is so bad at education policy is, indeed, simple: the World’s Worst Legislature doesn’t know what education is. Hoosier lawmakers don’t understand the difference between education and job training, and they appear entirely unaware of the critical importance of public education in forming a “body politic.” 

I have posted numerous times about the insanity of Indiana’s voucher program, which siphons resources from public schools, increases civic polarization, evades the constitutional separation of church and state, and has utterly failed to improve student academic performance. Recently, we’ve also learned that, despite early promises about benefitting poor children, most families taking advantage of vouchers are upper-middle-class or wealthy.

The legislative drive to privatize education and send money to religious schools at the expense of both poorer Hoosiers and the state’s public school system is reprehensible enough, but last session’s changes to academic requirements underscored lawmakers’ confusion of job training with the purposes of a genuine education. (We had already seen that confusion when the legislature passed a “workforce development” bill giving high school students credit for substituting an apprenticeship with local businesses for academic coursework.)

During its last session, lawmakers modified the requirements for what is known as the “core 40” that high school students must take to graduate.

As Chalkbeat recently pointed out, at a time when too few Hoosiers have college degrees,

A plan to refocus Indiana’s graduation requirements on work experiences would eliminate a diploma linked to college-going without providing a clear alternative for students seeking postsecondary education.

There’s a lot to dislike about lawmakers’ most recent cluelessness, but allow me to focus on just two areas: science and civics. 

The requirement for science instruction has been reduced to two classes from six, and there are now no required courses.

In a world facing the enormous challenges of climate change, determined efforts to deny the efficacy of vaccines (and medical science generally), and multiple other conflicts that are the result of a widespread lack of scientific literacy, this is insane. It’s bad enough that many voucher students will be taught creationism rather than science, but to dramatically reduce required instruction in the scientific method is to turn out even those desired “worker bees” with a lack of the basic knowledge they’ll need to function (including their ability to remain employed!) in an increasingly technological world.

Worse still, citizens who don’t understand the difference between a scientific theory and a wild-eyed guess will be vulnerable to the anti-scientific claptrap spewed by climate-change deniers and culture warriors. Absent a basic understanding of how science operates, they will certainly not be informed voters.

Then there’s the reduction in social studies requirements.

Students will no longer be required to take economics, world history or geography–only government and U.S. History. To belabor the obvious, without an understanding of basic economics, students will be unfamiliar with a major element of both governance and history. In an increasingly inter-connected world, they will be able to graduate without understanding the all-important context of American history, or the multiple influences of global interconnections.

Education has been defined as the development of reasoning and judgment–intellectual preparation for a mature life. That preparation will include–but be much more extensive than– job training, and it should include knowledge needed for effective citizenship. One of the major purposes of the public school was–in Benjamin Barber’s phrase–to be constitutive of a public. Public schools were created in large part to create Americans from children coming into the classroom from diverse backgrounds. We abandon that essential task when we privatize schools and limit required instruction to job skills. 

Gubernatorial candidate Jennifer McCormick–a life-long educator who previously served as Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction–left the Republican Party in part due to her profound and informed disagreement with the legislature’s super-majority over these issues. 

It’s one more reason to vote for McCormick. 

PS Another major reason to vote McCormick is her support for reproductive freedom. If you can, attend her Reproductive Town Hall in Indianapolis on June 11th, from 6:30 to 7:30 at IBEW Hall, 1828 N. Meridian Street #205.


Race, Religion, Money And Vouchers

The nefarious effects of educational vouchers continue to be documented. 

The Washington Post recently reported on a study confirming what a number of prior studies have suggested: that an unexpected rise in racial segregation is largely attributable to the expansion of school voucher programs.

Ahead of the 70th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, a study being released Monday shows a pronounced increase in school segregation since 1988, particularly in large school districts with significant numbers of Black students.

Overall, school segregation between Black and White students has increased by 25 percent since 1991 in the 533 large districts serving at least 2,500 Black students — a significant increase but nowhere near the decline that occurred in the aftermath of Brown, according to the study. (Of note: the paper makes clear that most of the school segregation in the United States is driven by demographic differences between districts, not within them.)

The study found that the problem was not housing segregation, although that certainly helps explain school segregation, because housing has become less segregated since 1991. It also found that rising school segregation isn’t driven by economic inequality, which has also declined over this period.

The researchers point to two specific policies: federal courts releasing school districts, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg, from obligations to desegregate schools beginning in significant numbers in the late 1990s; and school-choice policies that let parents pick what school their children attend.


Vouchers don’t just promote racial segregation–they also facilitate religiously-based polarization. I have previously written about Indiana’s voucher program, which sends millions of tax dollars to predominantly religious schools. A recent report from North Carolina underlines the role of school choice programs in siphoning public funds from public schools and sending them to religious schools, especially those aligned with conservative Christian churches and activists. Those schools have received hundreds of millions of dollars in state government funding in recent years.

Democrats in North Carolina have criticized the private-school voucher program for taking money — and students — away from public schools and sending them to private schools, where there’s often little public accountability for academic success, and where schools are free to engage in discrimination or hire people without credentials as teachers. Republicans defend offering families the choice of where to educate their children.

The report notes that several of these schools are “unabashedly Christian,” including one that has  

an application form that instructs potential families to provide the name and phone number of their pastor, detail which church ministries they’re involved in, and agree that their child can be expelled if the family doesn’t attend church services at least once a week.

If the data confirming that voucher programs promote racial and religious divisions weren’t troubling enough, a recent Brookings study confirms that–despite pious pronouncements about vouchers enabling poor children to escape “failing” public schools–vouchers have become another handout to the wealthy. The research looked at Arizona, one of several states where Republican lawmakers have created or expanded private-school choice programs to give nearly all students, regardless of their individual need, public funding to attend private schools.

In 2022, Arizona lawmakers opened the program to all students, including those already attending private schools. EdChoice touts the current iteration of the program as the “first to offer full universal funded eligibility with broad-use flexibility for parents.”…

The list of allowable expenses for Arizona’s ESA program is long. It includes everything from tuition and fees to backpacks, printers, and bookshelves. Overall, about 63% of state funds are being spent on tuition, textbooks, and fees at a qualifying school, with “curricula and supplementary materials” (12%) being the next largest expense.

And who, exactly, is benefitting from this taxpayer largesse?

We looked to publicly available data on Empowerment Scholarship Account recipients to get a clearer picture of who is receiving ESA funds. If, in fact, affluent families are securing the lion’s share of ESA funding, that would raise obvious questions about whether these programs are exacerbating rather than mitigating inequities in school access…

The researchers used a number of methods to determine where the funds were going, and the results were unambiguous:

In other words, regardless of the SES measure used (poverty rate, median income, or educational attainment), we see similar patterns in who is obtaining ESA funding. More advantaged communities are securing a highly disproportionate share of these scholarships.

Vouchers were supposed to improve educational outcomes for poor children. The programs have not only failed to improve learning outcomes, they have increased racial segregation, facilitated religious discrimination, and been a windfall for the wealthy (many of whom already had children in private schools), all while robbing the nation’s public schools of desperately needed resources.

They’ve been a civic and educational disaster.


Vouchers Again..

When we look at the growth of America’s polarization, and the reasons for it, we need to recognize the significant contribution made by voucher programs.

I have frequently written about the mythology of so-called “school choice” programs. The original argument was that they would allow poor children to escape sub-standard public schools, that children attending them would receive better educations, and that competition with “government schools” would trigger improvement in those schools. (The critics constantly complaining about the nation’s public schools for some reason never suggested putting additional fiscal or human resources into improving those schools. Instead, the “fix” was entirely punitive– siphoning off existing resources in order to generate competition.)

It is now pretty clear that the actual motivation for privatizing education was as a mechanism to evade the First Amendment’s prohibition against sending tax dollars to religious institutions (destroying teachers’ unions was the cherry on top….). Proponents successfully argued that the money was going to parents, who were then free to choose religious schools if they wished.

Of course, the vast majority of schools accepting vouchers are religious–and the vast majority of families using vouchers send their children to those religious schools. Meanwhile, those initial promises remain unfilled: voucher students have not performed better on standardized tests (often, quite the contrary); a majority of the families using vouchers are middle and upper-middle income, not poor; and far from triggering improvement in the nation’s irreplaceable public school systems, the programs have impoverished and hobbled them.

Most people who are familiar with the performance of voucher programs know all this. What is less well understood is how educational vouchers have deepened American divisions. A recent report from In The Public Interest focuses on how and why.

The report looks at what voucher schools do with the public dollars being bled from public schools.

They preach—and practice—discrimination. Education Voters of Pennsylvania has pulled together a list of the ways voucher schools have discriminated in that state, and Illinois Families for Public Schools has done the same for Illinois—both make for bracing reading.  But what’s true for Illinois and Pennsylvania is true across the country.

The study documents discrimination against LGBTQ+ students, discrimination on the basis of religion, and discrimination against students requiring special education attention. A large number of religious schools also teach that women should not have the same rights as men. In Wisconsin, Lutheran schools receiving public money hold to the following beliefs:

Since God appointed the husband to be the head of the wife (Eph 5:23), the husband will love and care for his God-given wife (1 Pe 3:7). A wife will gladly accept the leadership of her husband as her God-appointed head (Eph 5:22-24).

In church assemblies the headship principle means that only men will cast votes when such votes exercise authority over men. Only men will do work that involves authority over men (1 Co 11:3-10; 14:33-35; 1 Ti 2:11,12).

 Women are encouraged to participate in offices and activities of the public ministry except where the work involves authority over men.

The Arizona Lutheran Academy website includes the following text:

Many families are surprised to learn about the options and come to realize a private, Christian education can be a reality. It is rewarding to walk families through the tuition assistance process and see how God provides in ways that some never knew existed.

As the Executive Director of In The Public Interest wryly commented, “Well, not God, exactly. All of us are paying for it with money intended for public schools.”

Discrimination paid for with public money is bad enough, but what is worse is that voucher schools– especially but not exclusively religious voucher schools–can teach (or omit teaching) pretty much anything they want. A colleague and I looked at Indiana’s voucher schools a few years back, and found few of them bothering with civics.

More to the point, historians tell us that public schools were intended to be constitutive of a public. In other words, America’s public schools were established to do more than teach subject matter, important as that task is. They were meant to undergird e pluribus unum–to create an over-arching unity from our diversity. Residential segregation has always made that goal difficult, but even in neighborhoods where the children come from similar socio-economic households, they bring other differences to the classroom, where they should learn that the American Idea respects those differences but also welcomes all of them to a common civic table.

Enormous amounts of our tax dollars are being spent to avoid those lessons. Vouchers are contributing to America’s polarization and to the growth of Christian Nationalism–and they are doing so without producing any of the educational benefits originally promised.

They’re a very expensive scam.


About That War On Education

Far-right Republicans have been very candid about their war on higher education, as I have previously detailed. The party’s activists have been less open about their continuing effort to destroy American public education, and to re-direct public money to the private, mainly religious schools that teach from a perspective they prefer. (As with so many of the Right’s accusations, projection is obvious; claims that “government schools” are indoctrinating–“grooming”–children reflects their own intent.)

A recent article in the New Republic suggests that the Right is winning its war on public education. The article began with a report on the Congressional testimony of one Lindsey Burke.

Burke, an education policy program director at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, was responding to a question from Democratic Representative Jamaal Bowman, after Burke had spoken in favor of “school choice.” Allowing parents to use public education funds to send their children to private schools—including religious schools—was, she argued, merely a way to enable families to “choose learning environments that are safe, and effective, and reflect their values.”

Heritage is one of a number of Rightwing “think tanks” and organizations dedicated to defunding public education–mostly through educational vouchers and similar mechanisms that they claim will “restore parental control” over education. Parental control is increasingly the  “frame that contains both the typical free-market conservative argument against public education and the Christian right argument against exposing children to the immorality of “government schools.”

In 2021, Burke co-wrote a paper with a colleague for the American Enterprise Institute that argued for “allowing families an escape hatch from government schools pushing an agenda that runs counter to their values,” like critical race theory and “transgender ideology.”

This “values-based” coalition Burke said she was introducing in 2022 involved “not just education choice groups,” she explained, “but also groups like Moms for Liberty,” who helped force “parental rights” onto the agenda in school board elections while also aligning with the far right, and “partners” such as Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian nationalist law project focused on anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion cases, which argued both the Dobbs case and a recent fake same-sex wedding website case. These groups, Burke said, “understand that the school choice movement is the solution to current cultural battles.” Conveniently, these groups also instigated these “battles.”

Think about the messaging: calling public schools “government schools.” Talking about “parental choice” and “Christian values.”

It isn’t just coincidence that these “Christian values” warriors focus inordinate attention on trans children (a vanishingly small percentage of the nation’s children, but an unfamiliar population and thus an excellent target for bigots). Rightwing activists are demanding that educators out trans students in the name of “parental rights.”

Nearly 90 bills forcing teachers to monitor students’ gender expression—including dress, pronouns, and names—and report trans and gender-nonconforming students to parents were recently introduced in state legislatures across the country, according to PEN America’s Index of Educational Intimidation Bills. At least five states have adopted these policies into law: North Dakota, Iowa, Alabama, North Carolina, and Indiana. What we are seeing in places like Chino Valley reflects a coordinated national plan to push laws and policies that would penalize educators who don’t go along—inverting their roles as mandatory reporters of harassment, neglect, and abuse at home….

As a tool of gender conformity and as a moral panic about the content of public education, these policies hit a sweet spot for the right—which may explain why more established conservative groups are stepping up to promote and defend them.

The article noted what has become increasingly obvious– the Right’s effort to eradicate public education is “inseparable from their accelerating attacks on LGBTQ rights and racial justice.”

Perhaps there is no better symbol of that intersection than Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who has boasted about writing the playbook: moving from using critical race theory as a rallying cry for white grievance against schools, then similarly promoting accusations that LGBTQ-inclusive schools are “grooming” young people. Rufo revels in “laying siege to the institutions” as strategy, as he said in a 2022 speech at the conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan. “We go in there and we defund things we don’t like, we fund things we do like.”

The linked article explores the effort to “defund” public education in much more depth, and I encourage you to click through and read it in its gloomy entirety.

In Indiana, the effort to help parents escape those nefarious “government schools” is succeeding; a growing number of children are using Hoosier tax dollars to attend  voucher schools–over 90% of which are religious.

Tribalism, anyone?

The next time you hear a self-proclaimed conservative bemoan “identity politics,” you might point out the way vouchers divide Americans.


One More Time…

Can you stand one more post about the scam that goes by the name of educational vouchers?

This time, I want to begin by suggesting that we may be on the cusp of reversing the effort to destroy public education in the name of parental “choice,” although not before considerably more harm is done.

The Arizona Mirror recently published a report under the headline “Arizona’s universal school vouchers are a cautionary tale for the rest of the nation.”

Here’s the lede:

The nation is watching as the devastating impacts of Arizona’s universal voucher program unfold. The most expansive and least accountable in the country, Arizona’s ESA voucher program is an unmitigated economic disaster with very real human impacts.

Arizona, like Indiana, has a legislature dominated by Republicans, and those legislators sold the concept of universal vouchers by insisting (as they did in Indiana) that it would help low-income students. They also insisted that the additional cost to the state would be negligible.

As the paper reports, just one year into what it calls “this  failed experiment,” it has become apparent that universal ESA vouchers are welfare for the wealthy. They are also on a path that will “devastate the state’s budget and lead to school closures, teacher layoffs, and eventually cuts to services like firefighters, health care, roads and more.”

The newspaper’s analysis was devastating:

  • Vouchers hurt Arizona’s economy: After universal expansion, ESA vouchers are on track to cost Arizona taxpayers over $900 million this school year — nearly 1400% higher than initially projected. The legislature could have used this funding for teacher and staff salary increases, building safety, 21st-century learning, and so much more. Instead, Arizona school districts are already looking at cuts and school
  • Welfare for the wealthy: Universal ESA vouchers are primarily claimed by families whose children were already in private school and could already afford this option; now, these vouchers represent an entirely new cost to the state.
  • Arizona’s vouchers have no accountability: Unlike other states, Arizona’s universal vouchers have little to no transparency to taxpayers, zero academic accountability, and zero safety standards. There are no requirements to teach state standards, conduct background checks on teachers or tutors, or ensure site safety — meaning children will inevitably get hurt.
  • Vouchers hurt rural and low-income students: ESA vouchers are primarily claimed by more affluent families in wealthier zip codes and are concentrated in large, suburban areas. This robs funds from low-income and rural communities, leaving them behind.
  • With vouchers, students lose protections: ESA vouchers require parents to sign away federal rights, including protections for special education students, and are leading to many instances of state-funded discrimination against LGBTQ students, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities.

The article noted that other states have begun rethinking their voucher programs. In Texas,  a bipartisan coalition was able to block Gov. Abbott’s repeated attempts to pass ESA vouchers–the Texas legislature rejected voucher schemes five times this year. (One Texas Republican was quoted as saying “I believe in my heart that using taxpayer dollars to fund an entitlement program is not conservative, and it’s bad public policy. Expanding government-defined choice programs for a few without accountability… undermines our constitutional and moral duty to educate the children of Texas.” )

The Illinois legislature eliminated that state’s voucher program, concluding that it had enabled discrimination on the basis of religion, disability status, and LGBTQ+ status. And Georgia and Idaho have refused to institute voucher programs after concluding that the programs are both incredibly costly and lack essential accountability.

An earlier article from Politico confirmed that vouchers simply enrich wealthier Americans. It reported that the new vouchers in many cases lift—or even eliminate—household income caps, thus giving wealthier families state cash to send their kids to private schools–and data shows that many of these students aren’t leaving public schools for private ones.  Instead, most are going to students already enrolled in private schools.

Perhaps the most significant observation in the Arizona newspaper’s report was contained in the last paragraph of the article, which pointed to the underlying purpose of the voucher movement:

Universal ESA vouchers threaten to accomplish in Arizona exactly what they were designed to do: dismantle public education. Arizona would be wise to follow the nation in learning from our mistakes — before it’s too late.

Will Indiana’s legislators learn from Arizona and other states? I’m not holding my breath…but at least other states seem to be catching on.