by Jim Lang
I have admittedly grown numb at the sheer volume of stupid education bills being considered by the Indiana House. But as a conservative and a teacher who supports public and private school education, I am especially offended that Indiana House Republicans are choosing to ignore their conservative roots to irresponsibly expand school vouchers.
House Bill 1003 would expand handouts, commonly called vouchers, for thousands of Hoosier students, costing Indiana public schools at least $47 million. Forget for a moment about the constitutional questions of providing handouts, er, I mean vouchers, to private school students and families…this bill is just bad economics. The Republican Party that worships at the altar of balanced budgets and fiscal restraint (except apparently when they’re in power) suddenly wants to expand payments for handouts (vouchers) to $5500 each, despite the fact that most Indiana public schools only receive $5200-$5300 per student. In the following year, minimum payments could rise to $6500. That is all money being removed from a public school system that has already been decimated by budget cuts so that Hoosier families, some who can already afford it, can get a handout to send their child to a private school, most likely a religious private school.
There. I said it. Someone had to. Yes, many families who would claim these handouts do not need them. Unlike previous voucher bills that provide educational handouts to financially struggling families, this bill expands the playing field even more to provide funding to families who, frankly, do not need it.
In fairness, I should say that no one supports strong private schools more than I do. My parents chose to send my sister and me to Sacred Heart Elementary School in Jeffersonville when we were younger. We benefited from an outstanding education and from becoming more knowledgeable about our Catholic faith.
However, when my family made this choice, no one provided a state-sponsored voucher for us. Instead, my parents did what most families of their generation did — they worked longer hours, resisted the urge to buy a new car (anyone who remembers the horrific 1976 yellow Ford station wagon I drove in high school can attest to this), eliminated extra expenditures like electronics and vacations, and saved the extra money that they earned for their choice. No government involved.
And, for the record, they never believed that spending extra money to send their children to a private, religious school should somehow exempt them from their civic responsibility to pay taxes to provide for the free public education guaranteed by our Indiana State Constitution.
My parents and their generation understood the long-term economic value and moral necessity to do their part to provide an education for all children. They certainly did not expect their state government to provide financial incentives or (here’s that word again) state-sponsored handouts in the form of vouchers. Instead, they encouraged and expected the private institutions and schools themselves to provide tuition assistance to those families who truly needed it.
Law makers who truly care about children should encourage private schools, churches, and advocacy groups to develop the essential scholarship and tuition-assistance programs needed to attend private and/or religious schools if they choose. That would be the true conservative approach. Every family should have the freedom to send their children to a quality school of their choice, even if the school is private or religious. However, the state should have absolutely no direct role in providing any financial assistance that allows it to ignore its constitutionally-mandated role to ensure a quality public school system for all children.
And that, really, is the shameful part of all of this. House Bill 1003 is nothing more than a hefty state-sponsored financial bonus for Indiana private schools in a state where legislators are required to “provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall without charge, and equally open to all.” That last phrase is from the Indiana State Constitution, which also, coincidentally, also warns us that “no money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.” Nothing could be farther from true conservatism than this.
And before critics jump on the typical bandwagon of shameless semantics and declare, “But Jim, the tax credit goes to the families, not the schools,” let me respond with this: you should be embarrassed by that argument. Do we provide tax credits to Hoosiers who live in high crime areas to hire private security? Do citizens who oppose military intervention by the United States military around the world get a check from the federal government because of their opposition based on moral or religious grounds?
We are a society that pays taxes because we need some services provided for the betterment of all. While we can and should debate the amount of these taxes, we should also be far more vigilant when our government suddenly takes such an interest in promoting private, often religious institutions like schools.
The quality of a private school education is often due to its independence from government interference, an autonomy that will not last if private schools accept educational handouts in the form of vouchers.
As Hoosier voters, it’s time we more fully understand educational issues and demand more from our political leaders. House Bill 1003 sounds like a wonderful idea to many. However, it is just the kind of careless, even dangerous legislation that we are seeing more of from an Indiana House that cares far more about representing wealthy special interests than Indiana voters or children.
It is educational “reform” that ignores the Indiana State Constitution, defies true conservative principles of economic restraint and individual responsibility, blurs the essential line between public and private institutions, and, perhaps most importantly, would severely damage Indiana’s public and private schools.