Speech given by Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer
Location: Rotary Club in Bloomington
Thank you for having me here today.
I first got involved in advocating for public schools in 2010 when the state had just slashed $300 million from the public education budget and we here locally had to put a referendum on the ballot--working hard to bring back teachers & programs that had been cut. I had four children in MCCSC at that time and so, when asked to represent one of my kids’ schools, I agreed to go to a meeting about the referendum and wound up being a canvassing coordinator for the campaign. That referendum campaign of 2010 was a beautiful community effort—people from all walks of life came together in whatever way they could, to restore funding for our local public schools. We were very successful and much of what we are able to offer our students in MCCSC today is thanks to that effort and the generosity of the community and the continued referendum dollars.
Why did people, many of whom did not have children in the schools, work for and vote for giving this funding to our community schools? This is important to think about. Maybe it’s because people recognized that great public schools help make this area a great place to live. Maybe some people recognized that vibrant public schools also help improve home values and real estate healthy. I’m sure many either work or have a spouse, neighbor, relative , child working for the public schools. Our public schools are big employers in our communities. Or maybe people just recognized that all children should have the right to a great education.
As a parent, I have seen firsthand how four very different individuals have benefited from a well-resourced school system. My oldest went from being too shy to hardly talk to a kid in the marching band, to being given two leadership awards at the end of his senior year. My next child, the one who struggled with his emotions and temper in middle school, got through that time thanks to patient teachers and principals who understood adolescent behavior—and he is graduating with honors from IU next month. My daughter loved the peer tutoring class where she worked with kids in the self-contained special education classroom. She loved feeling helpful and every day she looked forward to being with the friends she made there. My middle schooler is a book worm thanks to his elementary school librarian who Skyped with authors and encouraged the love of reading.
I tell you these stories to illustrate the depth and richness of the educational experience for my kids because it is reflective of what all kids should have access to in our public school system in Indiana. Every child should have access to the extracurriculars like marching band; every child should have certified licensed, experienced teachers who understand child development; every child should be in an integrated setting and learn from others who are different than they are; every child should have a school librarian with a well-resourced library. Sadly, this is not always the case. Where my kids have benefited from a teacher librarian at their schools, our neighbors in surrounding districts only have the state-mandated one librarian to the entire school district. Other neighboring schools have just one social worker to share between two small rural school districts. There are schools that are crumbling in Indiana and others are not able to afford enough nurses. We have large disparities with what our public schools are able to offer to children from town to town…and it’s growing. The funding for our community public schools has not kept up with inflation in Indiana and we are feeling the effects. While the urgency around supporting public schools in our area may not be felt as keenly as it was back in 2010, the need to support our public schools is no less urgent now and the threat is continuing to grow.
This is because, following the $300 million budget cuts felt in 2010—(money which the legislature, I must add, despite sitting on a surplus of over $2 billion dollars, has never put back) …a set of bills was passed in 2011 that dramatically changed the teaching and learning environment in Indiana. Our Indiana legislature adopted the educational reform policies of charter schools, vouchers for private schools, and high stakes testing. They all came to the forefront of educational policy all at once under Governor Mitch Daniels and then state superintendent Tony Bennett. Pointing to public education’s so-called failure as justification, these measures of the “money following the child” or “school choice” created the situation we find ourselves in today of competing for dollars and resources, with tests used as the stick and carrot to control what goes on inside our schools.
It was in response to these reforms, that the Indiana Coalition for Public Education was formed at the state level in 2011. Recognizing the threat to the funding stability of public schools, a group of retired educators and community members organized together to fight for the funding and to inform the community. Several months later, we formed our group, the Indiana Coalition for Public Education of Monroe County. Some of our first founders were retired educators, many of whom some of you would recognize: Harmon Baldwin, Mike Walsh, Ron Jensen, Phil and Joan Harris, Carl Zager, Ellen Brantlinger and Roger Fierst to name several. I had met many of these folks on the referendum campaign and was happy to come to learn as a parent and concerned citizen. Eventually, we brought more parents and community members in and our fledgling group grew as we worked to support our local public schools, inform the community about legislation that affects funding, and continue to try to empower our citizens to act and vote in support of public education.
We are a nonpartisan group because this is a nonpartisan issue. Republicans and Democrats alike have love their public schools. Republicans and Democrats alike have gotten behind some of these reforms like charters and high stakes testing. But we not nonpolitical. Politics is about our relationship to power and public education’s future is caught in a major power struggle.
In order to understand the threat to our public schools, it’s important to understand the major reform issues because they can be confusing.
Indiana has the largest voucher program in the country. A voucher goes to the student to attend a private, almost always religious school. It doesn’t always cover the cost and, unlike how they were sold to us in the beginning, more than half of voucher recipients have never set foot in public school and likely never intended to do so. You can make $90,000 for a family of four and still qualify for a partial voucher. Schools that accept vouchers do not have to accept all students. They can refuse to accept students who identify LGBTQ or whose family does. They can refuse students who have special educational needs or behavior problems, or who are often those with lower test scores. This is why the “school choice” policy really is about schools choosing and not the other way around. There is no auditing of their budgets required by law so most of it goes unchecked. Since their inception in 2011, we have spent well over half a billion tax dollars to vouchers. The trouble is also that the state legislature has no line item for this cost and has never added to the budget to offset the expense. It is like a hole in the overall bucket of our education funding and it is steadily draining out as it continues to expand.
Another way in which public funds have been redirected from public schools is through the expanding charter schools in our state. Charters are often referred to as “public” schools because they are publicly funded and free to families. But they are not accountable to the public through a publicly elected board. They have different requirements and do not have to adhere to all of the education laws that public schools do, including having licensed certified teachers. We also don’t get choices about whether they come to our town taking students and, thus, funding away from neighborhood public schools. They are approved or authorized by a number of different entities in Indiana, places like Ball State, the mayor’s office in Indianapolis, and even the religious institution Grace College and Seminary. Every authorizer then gets 3% of the per pupil state funding going to the charter school. Charters were originally begun in the 90s as a way to provide some innovation and cut some red tape in order to bring back cool practices and ideas to the whole of all public schools so that all might benefit. But now that is no longer the case. Charter schools remain separate school systems in and of themselves. Every time a child leaves the neighborhood public schools to go to a charter, his or her per pupil amount of state money goes with him or her—the money following the child.
Now, some charters are very good, some much worse, but as a whole, their performance generally shows them to be about the same as public schools. But charters require there to be someone in the child’s life looking for options, filling out forms for a waitlist, and providing transportation and often lunch. Sometimes they have mandatory parental volunteer hours. That means that the kids whose parents are working two jobs or who are in some of the most dire situations are not going to the charter schools. We also have to ask ourselves, do we want kids to have excellent public schools only if they win the lottery? Why are we destabilizing public community schools who lose funding and often engaged families to give a few kids a separate education? Do we have the money to fund separate systems of education adequately?
Virtual charter schools have been in the news lately as a glaring example of a lack of oversight. The online charter model has grown rapidly in Indiana such that there are now about 13,000 students statewide who login (or not) from home to go to school. Well, it turns out that last year, across 6 virtual charter schools, 2000students never earned a single credit of school despite being enrolled for nearly a year. That means $10 million went to educating students who never did any work or failed in every class. The state legislature is thinking about adding some accountability measures to these online schools and capping their funding at $80 million. One of the accountability factors they’ve been tossing around is requiring that all students actually live in Indiana because, apparently, that’s been a problem. Remember that bucket of money? This is another hole…
These are the schools you hear about when the legislature talks about “school choice” and creating a marketplace of competition for schools which they believe will create a better product. Remember: competition involves winners and losers. Do we really want a six year-old to be on the losing end of equal educational opportunity?
Public schools are succeeding. Our graduation rates are better than ever before. The opportunities we can provide to students are more diverse, exciting and interesting than ever before. Yet, it is the narrative of failing public schools and the need to quantify success that has brought about the third reform that has changed the overall climate and that is testing.
The state has changed the test so many times in the past decade that one can hardly keep track. This year they are rolling out a new test and I think they hope we parents will be pacified by the fact that it is no longer the ISTEP, they have renamed it the I-LEARN. It’s not really the test itself that most parents and teachers object to, it is the fact that high stakes are attached to it and that makes it become more of an emphasis.
It used to be that tests were used as a temperature check to just get an overall feel for where we were in education. But now testing is tied to punishment: things like the teacher’s pay, job security and evaluation, and the stigma of a letter grade on your school. Add to that the threat of a state takeover if you get four F’s in a row, and you have a pretty stressful situation.
Also: consider the fact that the highest correlated factor for a test score is the child’s family’s socioeconomic and educational background, and we can guess that the lowest grades will tell us more about the wealth of the students in that school than the effectiveness of teaching or quality of learning.
That’s not to say that kids in poverty can’t learn, but it is true that a child who was sleeping in his car last night is not as concerned with long division in the morning. Children do not learn in a vacuum. In fact, almost half of all children in public schools qualify for free and reduced lunch. These numbers are increasing. Children living in poverty need more resources. When we talk about the problem of public schools, we can pretty much guarantee it’s related to poverty. These kids come to us hungry or sick. They often deal with moving from place to place, violence, addiction, and all kinds of trauma. Success for these kids involves meeting their basic needs for safety and health so that they are ready to learn. Kids can’t eat tests.
But what happens when success is only seen as reflected by a score on math and reading? Well, if you’re not careful, many children can lose social studies, history, art and music, they lose time to play at recess and explore and do projects and put on plays and go on field trips. You create people who are wondering “what do I have to know for the test” and not interested in learning for learning’s sake. High test scores should be a by-product of excellent teaching—not its purpose. Most schools here are not solely fixated on tests. We have a community that expects us to educate the whole child. Other communities are not so lucky.
I know that as a parent I want far more than can be found on a test score. I want my children to be lifelong learners, curious, kind, to think outside of the box, to know how to express themselves and get along with others. The funny thing is, this is what the business community wants to.
When you look at the what the World Economic Forum came out with recently as the top skills they see as will be necessary in the workforce to thrive in the year 2020, their top ten list is:
1) Complex problem solving
2) Critical thinking
4) People management
5) Coordinating with others
6) Emotional intelligence
7) Judgement and decision making
8) Service orientation
10) Cognitive Flexibility
But instead of looking at these goals and going to decades of educational research and instead of listening to EDUCATORS THEMSELVES regarding how best to teach and enhance these skills, our legislature has taken it upon itself to assume that these things can be found on a test and has continuously sought to change the standards and pathways and tests and requirements to try to get us there, disrupting education continuity and frustrating kids, parents and teachers alike.
We need to stop and listen to our educators. They are the experts in education and they can get us there. There is a reason that teachers are leaving the profession. It’s not just that they are wildly underpaid in Indiana (we are dead last in the country for how much we’ve increased teacher salaries since 2002 and we are 35th in the nation for average of teacher pay), it is that increasingly the state has taken away the local control over what is taught in classroom and how and when it is taught…by mandating all kids to be on the same page at the same time developmentally with regard to test scores. Teachers are the professionals who know how children learn and when they learn and how to reach them. But we are not respecting them in pay, we are not listening to them. The state gives no money for teacher professional development to learn the latest practices, but they will, apparently, pay for them to be trained in firearms (a bill this session).
Consider the purpose of public education. Public schools were created so that kids could learn what they needed in order to be able to participate in our democracy. Not only does that mean they should be able to find what they are moved by and passionate about and good at in order to make a living and contribute to society, but they should also learn to get along with others who think differently, believe differently, look different than they do and respect and value those differences. We thought long ago about creating a system in which all children had an opportunity to learn and succeed. We worked as a country to ensure that that system of education was open not only to landowners, but the poor as well. We made sure it was also available to women, to people of color, to immigrants, and to the differently abled. It was about trying to ensure that all children had a equal chance at a piece of the pie. This is the promise of public education that, while never fulfilled, is deeply American.
Instead of a concern for the common good and a focus on ensuring that all of our public schools are supported, the narrative surrounding public schools has become about competition, free markets, and “my child, my choice, my tax dollars.”
Those tax dollars are put toward our common good. We don’t ask firefighters or police officers to compete for better services. We don’t take our tax dollar vouchers from the library because we want to buy our ownbooks. We don’t get a chunk of tax dollars to put towards a country club membership because we don’t want to use the public parks or pool. We recognize that there is great value in providing good roads, libraries, parks and services so that everyone can be better off and live in community with one another.
It’s not about just my children. It’s about all children. It’s about creating a world in which all children can succeed because the stronger they are, the healthier they are, the more able to create and produce and work and innovate and share---the better off we will all be.
Public education is a public good and a social, civic responsibility. We all benefit from its strength. The budget is being discussed right now. Ask your legislators to increase the foundational support for public schools to 3% annually for the next budget biennium to give all public schools a helping hand.
ICPE–Monroe County is volunteer run. We host a farmer’s market booth, put on forums for political candidates and forums about issues that surround public education—issues like testing, teaching, and literacy. We believe that our public schools are the heart of our community. We encourage you to learn more, volunteer for your local public schools and support them.
Our children depend on it.
The future of our country and our democracy does, too.
Speech given by Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer
Location: Rally for Public Education at the Indiana Statehouse
Our legislators are failing our children. They are tasked with the support for public education in Indiana and, instead, they are making it a commodity.
The laws and educational policies they’ve put in place have created a marketplace of schools, where it’s about “a parent’s right to choose” and not a social responsibility. This is not about your children or my children: it’s about ALL of our children. Our state constitution does not guarantee our kids a “school choice” or “a quality education IF you can get it.” It says:
“Knowledge and learning, … being essential to the preservation of a free government; it should be the duty of the General Assembly to encourage … and provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.”
Their duty is to provide equal educational opportunity—not a competition for it. Not high quality schools if you win the lottery. Their job is to support our public schools and fund them.
5 years ago I stood here and said, "We think it is wrong that our PTAs have to hold bake sales and put pretty baskets up for auction while politicians redirect millions of our tax dollars to private schools."
That was 2013 when the amount of money our state spent on vouchers totaled $37 million.
Last year it was $146 million.
How many cookies do we have to bake to make up for that?
What kind of auction would retrieve the money that is flushed down the toilet with every charter school that goes belly up? We have spent well over a billion dollars on charters since 2011 and one in five have closed. What would our public schools have done with that money? Instead, people are making money off of these ventures—profiting off of our children.
What happens when education policy is determined by businessmen and legislators and NOT educators? Pushing kids onto tracks for college and career readiness. My son at 13 and, in 7th grade, is now taking a test to find out what career he should be thinking about preparing his schedule for in high school—a year and a half away. He came home from school last week and said, “Mami: I don’t WANT to be an adoption counselor or a grief counselor, but that’s what the test said I should be.” I said, “Don’t worry about that test, sweetie. Just try your best in your classes. Those tests are for making someone rich. It’s not time to figure out your career, yet.”
So, instead of focusing on empathy and kindness for just being a part of HUMANITY, these policies are pushing my son to look at his traits and abilities in terms of what they can bring to BUSINESS and the workforce. He is a child: trying to figure out who he is, how to rein in emotions, how to communicate well, how to think outside the box—and our state legislators are trying to force him into one.
You can call the test I-STEP or I-LEARN or I-MAKE-MONEY-FOR-PEARSON, but as long as the stakes are attached to the scores, as long as you are basing the future of schools, teachers and, yes, our KIDS, on a culturally/racially-biased, limited, and reflecting-socioeconomic status, standardized test score, you aren’t creating pathways, you’re creating social inequality.
The promise of public education is equity—it’s supposed to be the great equalizer, not the great workforce provider. Its purpose is DEMOCRACY and our legislators are currently deciding if they are against this, too. #HB1315 the state takeover of schools bill.
Democracy is messy and government can be disappointingly imperfect. But the answer is not to give up our power or our right to vote. It most certainly is not for our government to decide who gets democratic participation & representation and who does not.
Do we punish schools struggling financially or support them? Do we take schools that have lost funding and opportunity, purposefully starve them further, and then grade them and take them over based on how financially stable they are? Our legislature is shirking their responsibility to care for the most vulnerable of our society while blaming schools, teachers and kids for not trying hard enough to succeed. Poverty is at the heart of our public school troubles, it’s a societal problem and it will take all of us as a community to work together to solve. It’s an economic problem that involves economic development solutions.
And, at the center of a solution to a community problem must be real power-- by including voices that have been marginalized and joining together all voices, to effect change.
We know what happens when the public is kept out of decision-making power—we’ve seen the news in Michigan. We know that when public accountability is removed and top down decisions occur, it’s as toxic to democracy as the water that children in Flint drank.
We must stand in solidarity with our fellow citizens of Gary and Muncie. We must demand the senate appropriations committee create a timeline for a return to local control. Our schools and school boards are democracy in action. Our fellow citizens, community members, who are accountable to us, not those who appoint them-- are what puts the “public” in public education. It’s not just about Gary or Muncie—your school community could be next.
Please join ICPE. Help us organize and inform our communities, defend public education, and help fulfill its promise for all of our children.
Speech by Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer
January 27, 2018
Good morning. My name is Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer and I am here as a (new) board member of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education’s state organization (ICPE). I am also the chairperson of the ICPE of Monroe County. I am also the mother of 4 children who now range in age from 13 to 23. And it is in this capacity, Mom, that I have joined with other parents, and grandparents, retired and current educators, and spent the last several years speaking out against the very intense efforts to privatize our Indiana public schools.
It’s an important voice, I think, to speak as a mother or parent supporting public schools. There are a lot of things being said about what we parents want. If you listen to Betsy DeVos, our U.S. secretary of education, she will tell you that it’s about a parent’s right to choose the school that is best for his or her child. She says parents know best about what schools are the best FIT for their child. But the thing about “school choice” is that it is NOT about parents choosing, it’s about schools choosing. And many times, if your child has behavior problems, is learning English as a new language, or has some serious special needs—your child may not be the right fit for their school. And this is the problem.
As a mother, I don’t really want lots of choices. I want well-resourced, excellent schools for my children. I think we all do. And, actually, it’s not just about my child—this is about all of our children.
We want schools with teachers who are experienced and educated in how children learn and best practices. We want schools with certified gym, music, and art teachers. We want teacher librarians with well-stocked libraries and media resources. We want electives, extracurricular activities, and clubs for our kids: marching band, sports, Science Olympiad, robotics, photography, AP classes, and world languages. And, most of all, we want our kids safe and cared for. These are the things that all parents would choose if they could. But it was really never about giving parents choice. Instead, it was about giving some parents a choice. It’s about taking funding in the form of vouchers and charter schools away from the whole to give to a select few and it’s about the destruction of our public education system.
I began my involvement about 8 years ago. Our school system, like many others across the state, was in a bit of crisis. Then-governor Mitch Daniels had cut $300 million from our public education budget. ($300 million, by the way, which they have never given back). That meant about 72 teachers and precious programs were cut in our local schools in Monroe County. Our community then came together, from all walks of life, and put a referendum on the ballot in the fall of 2010, and we passed it. This entire experience, however, was a wake-up call for many of us.
A lot of us were suddenly paying attention. I had, like you all, heard about “failing public schools.” I certainly had my own critique of our schools and public education. The elephant-in the-room fact is that we have never fully committed ourselves to equity. We have never fully funded our schools to account for the poverty of some of our communities and we have never completely addressed the institutionalized racism that exists in our educational system. We have never committed ourselves in full to the integration of our schools and to their democratic purpose. And that inequality made public education ripe for the picking for the uber-wealthy and the zealots of free markets.
So, in 2011, in the name of the poor inner-city child, our state legislature passed a slate of laws that dramatically changed my kids (and yours) educational environment. Ideally, legislation comes from the people through our elected officials—we find a problem we want to address and our representatives introduce it into the statehouse and create laws that make our lives and communities better. But these education policy laws were written by a kind-of front group for the wealthy and corporate interests called the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC.
We first heard about it when Trayvon Martin was shot and the newspapers exposed the fact that the Stand Your Ground law was written by ALEC (in the interests of the gun lobby, etc.). ALEC is made of corporations and uber-wealthy business people like the Koch brothers, the Walton family of Walmart, or even organizations associated with Betsy DeVos who stand to make a LOT of money off of the destruction and privatization of public education. The testing companies, the profitable charter schools management organizations, the online education groups, and the hedge fund managers are all raking in our public tax dollars.
ALEC pays for conferences to woo legislators into adopting their model legislation back home. ALEC is a bill-mill and here in Indiana. They have been very successful. There’s even a reform package of model legislation on the ALEC website named after us! Our former governor Mike Pence has written the introduction to the ALEC “Report Card on American Education.” Many members of our education committee are or were ALEC members. Our House Education Committee Chairman, Rep. Bob Behning, was at one time the state chairman himself. We win the “reformy” prize here in Indiana.
What laws were these? The A–F grading of schools, teachers’ loss of voice in advocating for kids through the loss of collective bargaining, the draconian 3rd grade reading law which started the IREAD-3, vouchers and charters creating a competition for funding, a rigid 90-minute block of literacy instruction, tying teachers’ jobs and salaries to kids’ test scores, REPA3 which deprofessionalizes teaching by allowing anyone with a 3.0 GPA and a bachelor’s degree in anything…who passes a test… to be a teacher. These are all ALEC laws. They were not backed by research of what are best practices in teaching. These policies were not created by educators. These policies are about what’s in the best interests of corporations and the 1%.
Seeing the writing on the statehouse wall, some retired educators got together in 2011 and created ICPE to fight vouchers and the defunding of our public schools. They understood the threat—where parents like me were just driving carpool unaware. But it has taken the last several years, the closing of our children’s schools, the growing class sizes, the stress of high-stakes testing, and the complete disrespect of our teachers, for parents like me to wake up and GET INVOLVED. And we are doing just that. Mama bears and papa bears are pretty fierce when it comes to our kids—and we won’t let Betsy DeVos… or anyone funded by her…harm our young.
There is a feminist saying: “The personal is political.” A lot of people for a long time have been saying, “I don’t do politics.” Or, “I don’t want to get political.” But politics is not about Republican or Democrat; politics is about your relationship to power. Our public schools, and the teachers and children within them, are caught in the middle of a massive power struggle. We MUST get political.
And this brings us to today. It’s been 7 years since Indiana started this grand experiment of letting the money “follow the child” away from our neighborhood schools and into other public schools or private, voucher, or privately-run charter schools. It’s been 7 years of children throwing up in stress over test scores that determine the future of their teacher’s jobs and the schools’ existence.
Since its inception in 2011, we’ve spent something like half a billion dollars on vouchers alone. Some of my ICPE friends have been looking at the data available on the Indiana Department of Education website about charter schools and, since 2011, it is well over a billion dollars in total that we have spent toward that experiment. But almost one in five charter schools have closed over the past several years and the total number of dollars going to those charters now defunct is something like $142 million!
Public-to-public transfers are also destabilizing our public schools. Even though a student leaves with the per pupil funding that would otherwise go to the neighborhood public school, you can’t stop paying for the lights, the building, the teacher—it adds up.
My friend Steve Hinnefeld writes an education blog called “School Matters.” He recently did a post on the money leaving Gary and Muncie. He notes “Muncie’s general fund, the part of the budget that pays educator salaries and most operating expenses, was reduced from $55.4 million to $42.5 million over the past six years, according to figures from the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance. That’s a 23 percent cut.” And it’s not just you’ve lost enrollment since 2011 to 2017 (about a quarter of the enrollment in that time!). Steve also points out, “The legislature has also adjusted school funding to direct less money to urban schools and more to growing suburban schools. Gary Community Schools get over 20 percent less, per pupil, now than they did in 2011.
Muncie also took a hit in per-pupil funding and only recently returned to its 2011 levels.”
The rewriting of the funding formula that saw more money going to suburban schools and away from urban schools was chaired by Rep. Tim Brown of the Ways & Means Committee. Rep. Brown said, during those proceedings, “Did Mary’s mother get arrested the night before? Did Johnny not come with shoes to school? Those to me are not core issues of education.” But they are…
Our kids have a constitutional right to a free public education. It says: “Knowledge and learning, … being essential to the preservation of a free government; it should be the duty of the General Assembly to encourage … and provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.” It doesn’t say Indiana children have the “option to choose” or “a good education-- if you can get it.”
Charter schools—some of them are very good, some much worse, but as a whole, almost the same as public schools—require there to be someone in the child’s life looking for options, filling out forms for a waitlist, providing transportation. Do we want kids to have excellent public schools only if they win the lottery?
Why are we destabilizing public community schools who lose funding and often engaged families to give a few kids a separate education? Do we have the money to fund separate systems of education adequately?
Research is showing that this school choice movement is segregating us further as a society. The National NAACP has called for a moratorium on charter schools recognizing that when there is little to no transparency in the budgets of charter schools, we often don’t know where the money goes and they are often not held to the same accountability standards as public schools. With no publicly elected boards like public schools, parents have no political power and no voice in decision-making at charters schools.
In our county, there is an ideological bubble of a charter school whose authorization ICPE tried to stop. Our local community public schools are very well-resourced and performing very well. The founders of the charter school wanted to be away from the public schools and wanted their niche, classical school paid for.
They were turned down twice by the Indiana Charter School Board and then they did what only a few states allow charter schools to do: they went authorizer shopping. In the end, they were authorized by a private, religious college, 2 and a half hours away—Grace College and Seminary. We had no ability to stop it. We filled the meeting room with local parents and community members begging them to not take the funding away from the whole to give to a few. If you want more classics taught in school, push your school board and administration for it.
They got their ideological school. Last summer their charter school’s board of directors spent about 45 minutes trying to decide whether girls should be allowed to wear pants. “We are in the business of teaching girls to be ladies,” one of their members said. He wasn’t sure they could learn this without wearing a skirt!
This school took $300,000 from a tiny school district in our area—helping seal the nail in the coffin of a beloved community elementary school that had low attendance and was expensive to keep open. Crying community members who had attended that school for generations, begged for it to stay open. Their school board didn’t feel it was sustainable.
The harm of siphoning public funds to private or charter schools is like a death by a thousand cuts to the whole. The choice for a few is taking choices away from the whole.
And what about vouchers? A voucher goes to the family to attend a private, almost always religious school. It doesn’t always cover the cost and, unlike how they were sold to us in the beginning, most voucher recipients have never set foot in public school and likely never intended to do so. They are also increasingly wealthy since the program began. You can make $90.000 for a family of four and qualify for a partial voucher.
Voucher schools are also legally able to discriminate and choose who attend. In my town. there is a Christian school that says they will not accept LGBTQ students because their “lifestyle” is prohibited by the Bible. If a student’s “home life” violates biblical rules, the school can deny them admission or expel them.
Many voucher schools have great freedom over the curriculum. There are schools like this one that received $665,000 in vouchers that would otherwise go to public schools, that teach from the Bob Jones or Abekah textbooks. In these texts they call Malcom X a “black supremacist” and refer to “Radical environmentalists” who “don’t just appreciate nature, but they ‘worship” it. In a pursuit of preservation, “environmentalists advocate for laws that hinder the advance of technology.” OR there’s this: “Satan did not want people worshipping God, so in the late 1800s, Satan hatched ‘the ideas of evolution, socialism, Marxist-socialism (Communism), progressive education, and modern psychology’ to counter America’s increased religiosity.”
About 4,240 Indiana students received over $16 million in scholarships to attend schools that use the Abeka or Bob Jones curriculum, according to 2016-2017 figures from the Indiana Department of Education.
If you take public money, should you be able to discriminate? Public schools’ mission is to educate all children.
The primary justification for corporate education reform is found in the narrative of “failing public schools”—schools where there are usually the lowest test scores. Whenever we hear about this, you can almost guarantee that they are the schools with the highest concentration of students in poverty.
What is the number number-one factor associated with standardized test scores? It’s the educational and economic background of the child’s family. That is not to say that kids in poverty cannot learn. It is to say that a child who spent the night in his family car last night does not care about long division in the morning. That children whose basic needs are not met, have a harder time concentrating on learning. And that learning does not happen in a vacuum.
As parents, we do want more than what is reflected on a test. We want our kids to follow their interests, be passionate and curious. We want our kids to be kind, to be creative, to think outside the box, to be able to resolve conflict, to persist. And, none of these are reflected on a bubble test.
Do we need to think about this ever-moving target of test scores and the scarlet letters they slap on our schools that correlate with free and reduced lunch percentages? It does not help me as a mother to know the magic that is going on inside those schools and what kids are learning and creating. But it does feed the idea of competition. And these policymakers/legislators are all about believing that free markets will be the answer to anything. The thing about competition is that there are winners and losers. And no 6-year-old should be on the losing end of equal educational opportunity.
When I ask legislators about this competition of helping kids out of “failing schools” and ask how it helps kids “left behind” in these supposedly “failing” schools, I hear, “Well, the public schools will just have to WORK HARDER.”
Think about that:
While the number of dollars in teachers’ paychecks are actually going down in some places and certainly not going up?
While the number of kids in each class goes up?
While the number of things that teachers have control over in the classroom goes down?
While child poverty and the opioid crisis goes up?
While the number of dollars due to money following the child right out of the community public schools goes down?
This competition is a farce. Comparing schools is like comparing apples to oranges. And it’s a diversion because our teachers cannot solve the ills of society alone. They cannot cure poverty.
Our legislature is shirking their responsibility to care for the most vulnerable of our society while blaming schools, teachers and kids for not trying hard enough to succeed.
Poverty is a societal problem and it will take all of us as a community to work together to solve. It’s an economic problem that involves economic development solutions. And, at the center of a solution to a community problem must be real power by including voices that have been marginalized and joining together all voices to effect change.
Democracy is messy and government can be disappointingly imperfect. But the answer is not to give up our power.
I am from Michigan where the state legislature took over their schools and their cities. It happened in Detroit, Flint, Muskegon Heights—places where the majority of the population is people of color. And what happens when you don’t have that public accountability through a vote? There are areas of Detroit where parents have little to no choice. There are no well-resourced neighborhood schools in their areas. Or they have no car to get their kids to where there is such a school. Choice? On top of that, when you have someone whose job it is to cut costs and there are no checks & balances with the community, you have the possibility of dire effects: look at children drinking poison in Flint.
We must get informed, organized, and vote.
Accountability in a democracy is found in the voting booth.
Schools are not businesses or factories; they are places where our children learn what they need to be citizens of this country. It’s where they come together with people who are different than they are and learn to respect and celebrate those differences. Now more than ever we need this in our country.
Public schools’ purpose is democracy. They are reflective of our democracy and they are the heart of our community. Our fellow citizens, community members, who are accountable to us, not those who appoint them—are what puts the “public” in public education. Public schools are part of the common good.
Please join ICPE and help us defend public education.
"Our schools are being starved into failure in order to justify mass privatization” Timothy Meegan, Chicago Sun-Times
In the end, it’s not about my child, my choice. It’s about all of our children, it’s about the future of the country and our democracy.
John Dewey said it best: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely, acted upon, it destroys our democracy.”