The fight against private school vouchers is not just about the money diverted from public school students. It’s about the survival of our democracy.
The money is an important factor. Under the 2011 private school voucher law, $146 million in taxpayer dollars were diverted from public schools to private schools in the 2016-17 school year.
That’s $146 million in one year. The amount diverted has gone up each year during the six years private school vouchers have been funded by the state. No doubt that figure will continue to go up each year.
This amount has an obvious impact on public school students. Their schools are getting millions less.
The debate, however, about strengthening or privatizing our public schools is about far more than money.
The deeper debate is about whether our democracy will survive without strong public schools. When our public schools are privatized, will our democracy be able to continue?
Many observers have expressed concerns about the health of our democracy since the 2016 election campaign. It’s a genuine concern.
Private School Vouchers Will Undermine Our Democracy and Our Social Fabric in at Least Five Ways
If you analyze recent trends, you can see they have already done so.
1. Private school vouchers have shattered the separation of church and state observed in K-12 funding in Indiana since the 1851 Constitution.
In Indiana, 98% of private voucher schools are religious schools. Government and religion have now been entwined by giving millions in state tax funds to religious private schools, a practice that had been assumed to be wrong for 160 years after Indiana adopted the 1851 Constitution which said (Article 6) “No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.” State funds are now going to private religious schools that teach creationism in science class in place of evolution. State funds are now going to religious schools that can legally discriminate based on RFRA since they were exempted from the famous “fix” to the RFRA law. Government and religion are now entwined.
2. We will segregate into religious enclaves. Private religious schools are sectarian; Public schools are not.
Vouchers give an incentive for every religious group to use public tax money to set up their own religious enclave with their own school paid for by taxpayers, leaving communities fragmented. This will complicate the transmission of the skills of listening to other points of view and learning to give and take which are vital to maintaining a democracy. Experience with diversity will diminish and perspectives will narrow.
3. We will have greater partisanship. Public schools are politically non-partisan by law; Private schools, however, can be politically partisan.
Vouchers give public money to private schools that can indoctrinate partisan political attitudes into the minds of young children, unlike the non-partisan pro and con debate tradition that is fundamental to public education. Engrained partisanship will begin in the early formative years, complicating the work of democracy which depends on a willingness to compromise.
4. Marketing will rule. The competition for the approval of parents will put marketing above curriculum and instruction in the priorities of each school.
Vouchers force all public schools to put marketing as a new top priority. In the new world of school choice in a marketplace of schools, if parents do not know how good the school is, they won’t choose it. We all know that in any marketplace, marketing and advertising can make all the difference and that even poor choices can be made to seem good by clever marketing. Public schools must now push to the back burner their focus on sound curriculum and instruction while they put top priority on marketing and public images. The Hamilton Southeastern Schools, for example, is one of several districts focused on updating their brand. They recently initiated a marketing strategy update and branding makeover along with a website redesign costing several thousand dollars, paid not from tax money but from their Coke fund. Public schools across Indiana will have no choice but to take similar steps to maintain their enrollment in competition with virtual charter schools and many other competitive private schools that are recruiting for enrollment in Indiana’s school marketplace.
5. Civics will be neglected. The competition for the approval of parents will force enormous attention only on the subjects used to grade schools in the mandated testing program: math and language arts.
Vouchers force all schools to put math and language arts as first priorities because those subjects are the basis for accountability letter grades which are the most visible marks by which parents judge and choose a school. This has left citizen education, civics and non-partisan voter education as expendable items in the K-12 curriculum, a tragedy for our democracy which must teach every new generation the civic values and procedures of our democratic society. Less attention to civics and citizenship has been well documented in Indiana. This is perhaps the most damaging way that the voucher movement is undermining our democracy.
Consider the prophetic statement of the former Wisconsin State Superintendent Herbert Grover back in the 1990’s when Wisconsin passed the first private school voucher program:
"If you look closely, you can see the social fabric of America beginning to unravel. Private school vouchers permit us to fear one another, to surround ourselves with those who look and think like we do, and — in so doing — to abandon our commitment to pluralism and diversity."
Now consider the conclusion of a great article by Erica Christakos, who has written superbly on the vital importance of public schools in the October 2017 issue of the Atlantic entitled “Americans Have Given Up on Public Schools. That’s a Mistake.” She closes her must-read article with this thought:
“The political theorist Benjamin Barber warned in 2004 that ‘America as a commercial society of individual consumers may survive the destruction of public schooling. American as a democratic republic cannot.’ In this era of growing fragmentation, we urgently need a renewed commitment to the idea that public education is a worthy investment, one that pays dividends not only to individual families but to our society as a whole.”
The public schools of the United States have been a bedrock for democracy for 180 years since Horace Mann led the way. For the reasons cited above, we could lose our democracy if public education is privatized.
Let your legislators know that you support strong and well funded public education because you believe we cannot maintain our democracy without it.
Thank you for actively supporting public education in Indiana!
Vic Smith email@example.com
“Vic’s Statehouse Notes” and ICPE received one of three Excellence in Media Awards presented by Delta Kappa Gamma Society International, an organization of over 85,000 women educators in seventeen countries. The award was presented on July 30, 2014 during the Delta Kappa Gamma International Convention held in Indianapolis. Thank you Delta Kappa Gamma!
Our lobbyist Joel Hand represented ICPE extremely well during the 2017 budget session and is preparing now for the 2018 session. We need your memberships and your support to continue his work. We welcome additional members and additional donations. We need your help and the help of your colleagues who support public education! Please pass the word!