Thursday, January 30, 2014

There Are Consequences When Private Schools Rely On Public Funding

Many years ago when I worked for the Illinois legislature, there were a lot of conservative lawmakers who would clamor every year to pass legislation that would provide vouchers to parents to send their children to a school of their choosing, including private religious schools. There was one lone conservative lawmaker who always joined the Democrats in speaking out vocally against school vouchers. She reasoned that everything she disliked about public schools would be forced on private schools if they began relying on public funding. Public funding always comes with strings attached she argued.

The Indiana General Assembly a few years ago passed the Choice Scholarship program, Indiana's version of school vouchers. Because religious schools were among the private schools which began receiving money under the program, the ACLU of Indiana filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the law. The Indiana Constitution is pretty clear that public funds may not be drawn from the state treasury for any religious purpose, but the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the law, reasoning that because the Choice Scholarship program gave the money to the parents to let them choose where to spend it on their children's education, there was no public funding of religion and, besides, the purpose of the money was strictly used for educational and not religious purposes, even though some of these schools deny admission to students who do not practice their religious beliefs and include religious instruction as part of their curriculum.

It hasn't taken long for private schools to find objections to the strings attached to receiving all of that public financing, which this year more than doubled to $80 million to pay to send nearly 20,000 students to private schools. State Sen. Scott Schneider introduced SB 322 this year to allow private schools that received Choice Scholarship funding to opt out of using the state's ISTEP accountability testing and choose another form of standardized testing in its place. The legislation also limited the amount of data private schools would be required to report annually to the state's Department of Education. One of the immediate benefits of Sen. Schneider's legislation to private schools would be to free them from the state's controversial A to F grading system. It seems that some private schools have scored no better or even worse than some of our state's public schools.

"To me the essence of choice is that money follows the child to the institution of the parents choice," Schneider argued in trying to convince lawmakers to approve his legislation. "And that really is the true essence of choice. And if we are going to have a voucher program, we need to maintain some sort of autonomy for these schools." The Senate Education Committee didn't see it the same way so Schneider agreed to an amendment removing the provision that allowed private schools to opt out of ISTEP testing. He was successful, however, at convincing the committee members to allow some private schools to be limited in the amount of data they provide to the state before it passed his bill on a 9-3 vote out of committee. Schneider reasoned that some private schools were being forced to hire additional employees just to comply with all the state reporting requirements. Yep, that's part of the strings attached with public funding. Sen. Schneider's legislation to void Common Core standards received a better reception by the committee. SB 91 was advanced to the full Senate intact.

1 comment:

Greg Wright said...

The problem with K-12 education, in my opinion, is too much regulation and not enough choice. The simple answer is to de-centralize schools and give each school building control of its own budget, let parents pick any public school, and have the money (including transportation) follow the child. Local schools (Teachers, Parents & Principal) are fully capable of managing a local school. Schools will fail because they should fail. Parents – even those without a college degree – will figure out the best schools for their children. You cannot control education from the top down. School consolidation will only waste taxpayer dollars and hurt students. Private school vouchers will not fix today’s problems.