In Indiana: Pass Go and Collect Your Voucher

What issue could make the Chicago Tribune jump for joy and declare they are “idolizing Indiana”? It is the same controversial topic pitting excited parents against frustrated public school teachers. A new voucher program in the Hoosier State has quickly become a new battleground in the education wars.

Much to the chagrin of many in public education, Indiana was recently declared the national leader in school reform.  The state has achieved that title by greatly expanding parents’ options for their children’s education. Last May, Indiana state government passed a new measure called the Indiana Choice Scholarship that expands school voucher availability beyond lower income parents. Now families of four making under $61,000 a year can use prorated vouchers to send their kids to private school.

The change  has already resulted in more than 3,200 students receiving vouchers for private school.  The vast majority of those kids would have otherwise been in public schools and can now attend schools with smaller classrooms and what many parents expect to be more focused attention on their kids.

Essence Mosgrove is a parent of a 6th grader in public schools who was frustrated with the status quo: "I just felt like it was so many kids, they couldn't tend to my child.”  Mosgrove heard about the new voucher program and tried to get her daughter first on the list.

Education and school choice is not a typical left or right issue. Conservatives appreciate the fact that more choice and competition are created, while some on the left are happy that many children of lower incomes will be able to attend better schools. Even the Huffington Post has an article supporting the new Indiana voucher system. So what's the opposition?

The fact remains that money put into vouchers comes out of the Indiana public education system. While many make the case that taxpayers should get to choose where their dollars go, others make the simple point that less money could mean worse public schools.

“What infuriates that tax dollars will be and are being taken from already hurting public schools,” says Indiana public school teacher Chris Austin. “We (teachers) are trying, but when money is constantly taken from us while at the same time, we are expected to do more and more, our job becomes that much tougher. We work hard but we are not miracle workers.”

Another issue for some in the anti-voucher crowd is that most using the program are attending Catholic schools -- about 70% of vouchers. Some see a problem here with separation of church and state, since those schools will unashamedly teach Catholicism to some level. Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said: "The bottom line from our perspective is, when you cut through all the chaff, nobody can deny that public money is going to be taken from public schools, and they're going to end up in private, mostly religious schools."

The ACLU has also spoken out strongly against the new voucher system:

When you consider that vouchers undermine the separation of church and state, have done little to improve student performance, and divert desperately needed funding from public schools, they begin to look a lot less like an antidote (to education problems) and more like snake oil.

Among public school teachers who are Christian, the take on church and state issues appears more split than what teachers' unions and the ACLU are saying. Some of them say they let their faith guide them to be more open to the vouchers while others say there are always dangers when religion and government mix. Austin, a Golden Apple-winning teacher in Vigo County who is also a Christian, made it clear he thinks there is a constitutional problem with these vouchers possibly funding religion:

I personally believe it very much violates the (Indiana) constitution in the fact that tax dollars are being used to fund religion. Of course I'm a believer, but if the constitution was written so that tax dollars go to public schools, how can this be justified?