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COLUMN

Voucher ruling is a win for kids but poses challenges, opportunities for schools

Schools that don't meet expectations shouldn't complain when children, cash leave

Tuesday, April 2, 2013 - 7:01 am

How ironic that last month, just as the IPFW Women's Studies Department was celebrating 40 years of abortion on demand, the Indiana Supreme Court would uphold the kind of choice that liberals loathe.

The court's support of the 2011 law providing school vouchers to low- and middle-income families won't match Roe v. Wade's national scope (it wasn't a federal case), but the unanimous decision is expected to have widespread influence nevertheless, since the constitutions of many states mirror Indiana's prohibition against spending public money to benefit religious institutions.

And that presents not only broader educational opportunities for students but long-overdue recognition that even “public” money belongs not to the bureaucrats, but to the people who earned it – even if they want the taxes collected for their children's education to be spent at private or parochial schools.

But as important as the legal decision was, the social and political implications may be greater still because those who would use public schools to promote their agendas have been put on notice that there are – and will remain – other options for discerning parents who disagree with those agendas.

As Fort Wayne Lutheran Schools Partnership Director Mark Muehl correctly puts it, voucher opponents seem more worried about money than students. We're told how the loss of students hurts public schools, but seldom does anyone point out that each use of a voucher represents a parent's freely made choice about what is best for his or her child. “The goal of public funding for education, including the voucher program, is the same as it has even been,” he wrote in a column for Fort Wayne Newspapers. “It's all about meeting the needs of kids and their families.”

Because vouchers seldom cover the full cost of tuition and not all families qualify for them, the recruitment advantage remains with the public schools. But as The Associated Press pointed out last week, an estimated 530,000 Indiana students qualify for vouchers but just 9,000 are currently receiving them – meaning the court's decision clears the way for the program's expansion, should the states and non-public schools choose to do so.

As a product of the public schools, I find that unfortunate in one sense: Public education traditionally has been the epitome of the “melting pot,” the place where people from diverse backgrounds become well-educated, civic-minded Americans. But that diversity has its drawbacks, too, when it is allowed to impede discipline and academic progress or alienate people who believe their cultures and religions are being shortchanged for the sake of inclusiveness. Banning teacher-led prayer is one thing; turning Christmas break into a generic winter holiday is another.

But as the AP noted, there's a certain irony lurking in the support for vouchers as well. Many states prohibited tax support for religious institutions as a way to support the public schools then dominated by Protestants instead of schools operated by the Catholic Church. Fort Wayne's Catholic schools eagerly sought vouchers when they became available; the Lutherans were slower to react, fearing the program could create dependence on government funding that might be withdrawn later. That fear, apparently, has been erased.

Voucher foes are right about one thing: Private and parochial schools have the luxury of admitting some students and rejecting others – a luxury the public schools do not have. Disabilities, language and other factors beyond the schools' control can all affect test scores, sometimes giving an inaccurate picture of teacher quality and student performance. No one should want a “two-tiered” system of education in which the parochial and private schools skim off the best students and the public schools must take the rest.

But the legitimate desire to avoid such a scenario rests with improving public schools, not by continuing to tax people while denying many of them options public school cannot or choose not to offer. Increased competition has already caused public schools to improve; there's no reason still more competition can't induce additional changes that might have seemed unthinkable only a few years ago.

Nor should voucher supporters forget that competition is a two-way street. Quality public schools should and will compete successfully for good students – just as would non-Christian private schools seeking vouchers for education that might include instruction incompatible with the Bible but perfectly consistent with the court's ruling, and the state Constitution.

The issue here isn't that some schools may lose; it's that, thanks to vouchers, more parents and children can define academic success for themselves.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.