The architect of Indiana’s private school voucher law is being challenged in the May 6th primary by a Republican who opposes vouchers. The voters in the Republican primary in Indiana House District 91 will shape the future of public education in Indiana.
Representative Behning is being challenged by Michael Scott. Representative Behning has been the champion of private schools and the sponsor of the K-12 voucher laws. Public school advocates have in Michael Scott a candidate who supports public education.
Will the Republican voters of District 91 choose to continue the demise of public education through the policies of Representative Behning or will they choose to support public education?
[Please note: Indiana Code 3-14-1-17 says that government employees including public school employees may not “use the property of the employee’s government employer to” support the “election or defeat of a candidate” and may not distribute this message “on the government employer’s real property during regular working hours.” Ironically, the law does not prevent private school employees from using computers purchased with public voucher money to distribute campaign materials. Private schools now financed in part by public voucher dollars have retained all rights under Indiana’s voucher laws to engage in partisan political campaigns.]
A Clear Choice on Education Policy
I have closely observed Representative Behning’s work in the General Assembly since he became the chair of the Education Committee in the 2005 session. After serving as ranking minority member in 2007 when Democrats controlled the House, he returned as chair in 2011. Since then he has been the dominant force in making Indiana an experimental marketplace of school choice in which all schools, public and private, compete for the hearts and minds of parents.
Public money now flows for tuition to private and religious schools, breaking the vision of separation between private schools and public money that lasted for 160 years since our 1851 Constitution. Private and religious schools received $81 million in public tax money in 2013-14, according to a state report issued in January.
I strongly opposed passage of the voucher program and the major expansion of that program in 2013. Besides the $81 million shifted away from the one million students in public schools, vouchers entangle state tax money with religious education in religious schools and also give public money to subsidize private schools including their partisan political activities. Private schools taking vouchers have retained the right under Representative Behning’s bills to be as politically partisan as they want to be.
I continue to believe that when the damage to our democracy comes into clearer focus, the rush to expand vouchers will be reversed. For that to happen, voters will need to elect candidates who will support public education rather than private schools. Michael Scott will support public education.
Representative Behning has favored private education and has hurt public education to an extent not easy to summarize in a brief message. Here are three points for starters, all based on his actions since the last election in 2012:
- He was the leader in vastly expanding public dollars to pay for private and religious education in 2013.
This expanded experimental marketplace of schools has already had two harmful effects:
First, the dominant concern for all schools is no longer instruction or curriculum. The central concern now must be: marketing. If each school doesn’t get its message and accomplishments out to the parents who are making choices, the school will wither and die. Marketing programs and marketing budgets have ballooned.
Second, the balanced curriculum of my era is now gone. The competition among schools for parent loyalty is driven by math and English tests. All other subjects are receiving benign neglect as more and more attention goes to math and language arts. Music, art, social studies, foreign languages and even science are slowly fading as financial resources dry up and must be concentrated on what really counts: higher test scores in math and language arts. The intense competition for survival demands it.
Here is where the loss of money makes a big difference in the competition. Representative Behning’s voucher program siphoned $50 million from public schools to private schools in 2013-14 based on 12,000 students who transferred from public to private schools. In addition, HB 1003 created new pathways and a new expense to the state of $31 million for the tuition of 7800 private school students who have always been in private schools and have never attended a public school.
Representative Behning and the leadership can control the competition by controlling how much money public schools get. After this last budget that Representative Behning supported, public school budgets are hurting, and that puts public schools at a great disadvantage in the marketplace of schools brought to life by Representative Behning’s voucher program. The 2013 budget was downright stingy in school funding.
Do the voters of District 91 really support Representative Behning’s goal, stated in the Senate Chamber in a 2013 committee discussion, to expand vouchers until all private school students can get a tax funded voucher, be they rich or be they poor, which he called a “universal voucher”? I am not so sure. This election will tell us.
- He supported the lowest school funding increases in years while engineering increases in private school voucher payments that were twice the size of the funding increases for public schools.
Despite these low increases for public schools, Representative Behning won voucher increases of 4% in 2014 and 2% in 2015, rising from $4500 up to $4700 in 2014 and on up to $4800 in 2015. These amounts for private school vouchers are now higher than the per-pupil funding for several public school districts.
Low funding has hurt the ability of public schools to compete in the grand marketplace of schools that parents can now choose from. Many parents look for low class sizes, but when budgets are kept artificially tight in public schools, class sizes go up, and private schools can keep an edge in the competition that Representative Behning’s work has created.
Do the voters of District 91 really support Representative Behning’s low funding of public schools while voucher payments grow generously? I am not so sure. This election will tell us.
- He sponsored and passed a partisan bill to rewrite Indiana’s 1999 accountability law, Public Law 221.
He attempted to rewrite it in House Bill 1337, but his own Republican caucus handed HB 1337 an unexpected defeat, 33-61. A total of 31 Republicans and 30 Democrats joined in saying no to Representative Behning’s bill. At the end of the session, Representative Behning worked his changes into HB 1427 which passed on a partisan vote, including a controversial addition to inscribe into state law the labels for school performance, naming them as A through F. The 1999 law had left the labels up to the State Board of Education, but Representative Behning acted to take it out of their hands and write it into law.
Do the voters of District 91 really support Representative Behning’s partisan bill locking into law the labeling of our schools as A, B, C, D or F? I am not so sure. This election will tell us.
A different voice has stepped forward
In the great tradition of our democracy, Michael Scott has told me he is running because he believes most of Representative Behning’s positions on education are wrong. He wants the attacks on public education to stop. He opposes vouchers. He wants to see practicing educators have a greater voice in public education policies, rather than non-educators.
Representative Behning’s changes have had a detrimental impact on public education across our entire state. Michael Scott deserves the support of public school advocates across our entire state.
Representative Behning’s ideas on education are controversial within the Republican Party. There are many strong Republicans like Michael Scott who support public education. Will they show up at the polls on May 6th?
What can you do?
First, public school advocates who live in District 91 and wish to vote in the Republican primary should register to vote. A map showing District 91 near Plainfield in Hendricks County and Decatur Township of Marion County is attached. Voter registration ends on Monday, April 7th, one week from today.
Here is a link that can help with voter registration: indianavoters.in.gov/PublicSite/PublicMain.aspx
Public school advocates who live and vote elsewhere but want to support Michael Scott can do two things. First, talk with friends and relatives who live in Plainfield and District 91 to seek their support for Michael Scott. Second, go to his website to support his campaign with a donation: michaelscottforindiana.nationbuilder.com
Representative Behning has made a national name for himself among those who support private school vouchers. He will have plenty of campaign money to spend. Michael Scott could use your help.
Thanks for working to support public education!
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Some readers have asked about my background in Indiana public schools. Thanks for asking! Here is a brief bio:
I am a lifelong Hoosier and began teaching in 1969. I served as a social studies teacher, curriculum developer, state research and evaluation consultant, state social studies consultant, district social studies supervisor, assistant principal, principal, educational association staff member, and adjunct university professor. I worked for Garrett-Keyser-Butler Schools, the Indiana University Social Studies Development Center, the Indiana Department of Education, the Indianapolis Public Schools, IUPUI, and the Indiana Urban Schools Association, from which I retired as Associate Director in 2009. I hold three degrees: B.A. in Ed., Ball State University, 1969; M.S. in Ed., Indiana University, 1972; and Ed.D., Indiana University, 1977, along with a Teacher’s Life License and a Superintendent’s License, 1998.