HICKS: Vouchers could help fix what’s ailing Indiana schools

The timing of a recent lawsuit filed by the Indiana State Teachers Association seeking to halt Indiana’s school voucher program perfectly demonstrates the calculated disregard for the welfare of students and taxpayers that has come to define this teachers’ union. The good news is that the courts refused to stop some 2,200 poor kids from taking advantage of a program that ultimately benefits Hoosiers.

Public schooling, especially in urban areas of Indiana, is expensive and often quite poor. Private schools, both religious and secular, are less costly and typically more effective. However, taxpayers are the ones who support public schools, so the out-of-pocket costs of private schools are unaffordable for most poor and working-class families. So it’s primarily middle- and upper-income parents who send their kids to private schools. It is ironic that we give our poor children almost everything they need to escape poverty except the only thing that matters—a good education. Vouchers provide this opportunity.

Indiana’s voucher program offers up to $4,500 in private-school tuition payments for low-income families who have tried public schools and found them wanting. This year, 2,200 kids applied—the biggest chunk coming from the beleaguered Indianapolis Public Schools system.

The program is simple enough, so what is fomenting the dissent? Those of us concerned with the separation of church and state may well worry about public dollars flowing to parochial schools. It certainly gave me pause, until I remembered some 65 years of the G.I. Bill doing the same. Poor education is a far greater threat to our U.S. Constitution—even so, this position is the strongest of the feeble arguments against vouchers.

Vouchers do not reduce funding for education. In fact, the $4,500-per-student maximum price tag saves the state at least $6 million—and probably much more. That’s not a lot of money (about $1,000 for each IPS student who did not bother showing up for the first day of classes), but it is unambiguously taxpayer savings.

To be sure, some public schools will lose funding because students will flee from them, but that is hardly a cause for concern. Schools that cannot retain students ought to face declining budgets and perhaps close. That these schools do not do so now is part and parcel of our educational problem.

Ironically, the voucher system is not designed to do great things on its own. While it offers educational choice to low-income parents, that was not the point. The real purpose of vouchers was to add incentives for public schools to improve. The school voucher system is part of legislation designed to awaken a public school system that—though chock full of talented and caring teachers—continues to fail a large number of students.

Vouchers pressure schools to perform. They are to be celebrated, even as we must now consider ways to make school districts and families more accountable for their part in fixing education.•


Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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