Commentary

A Strategic Defeat for Educational Freedom

An expansive new voucher program, signed into Indiana law today, has been widely praised as a momentous victory for school choice and Gov. Mitch Daniels on the brink of his long-awaited presidential campaign announcement. In reality, the voucher program is a tacticalvictory for highly constrained choice won at the price of a broad strategicdefeat for educational freedom.

To see why, consider the bill’s regulations. Most people would agree there are some topics about which every child in this country should learn. Historical documents, for instance, that are vital for understanding our shared American heritage: the Federalist Papers, the Constitution, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, and Chief Seattle’s 1852 letter to the United States government.

Chief Seattle was a great leader of native Americans in the Northwest, and this moving letter lays out the vast gulf between how his people and the “white” man viewed the land, not as a commodity to be bought and sold but a part of themselves, a sacred trust. Chief Seattle’s letter is also a modern fabrication sprung from the pen of a screenwriter for a 1972 film about ecology.

And in Indiana, it is a legally protected historical document that public, and now voucher-accepting private schools, are required to have on hand for academic use by students.

The apocryphal Chief Seattle letter is merely an illustration of the dangers and absurdities of state-controlled curriculum. Private voucher schools will not only be forced to make this fabrication available to students, they are also prohibited from lowering a student’s grade, if he should, for example, cite the letter as a primary source in the course of his school work.

Unfortunately, this is just the peak of the regulatory mountain being dropped on participating private schools. The legislation will greatly expand state regulation of and authority over participating private schools. It will force them to annually administer the Indiana Statewide Testing for Progress examination (ISTEP), and submit both ISTEP and other progress and performance data to the state. It will require the state to track and evaluate private schools according to state standards, and to align consequences with their performances. It establishes a lottery admissions requirement for over-subscribed schools that could interfere with their ability to determine admissions procedures and the character of the school.

Finally, it establishes extensive and detailed new curriculum and pedagogical requirements for participating private schools, including some requirements that are not currently a part of state accreditation. For instance, private schools must “provide good citizenship instruction that stresses the nature and importance of,” among other items, “respecting authority,” “respecting the property of others,” respecting the student’s parents and home,” “respecting the student’s self,” and “respecting the rights of others to have their own views and religious beliefs.” What does this mean for religious private schools teaching that one can only be saved by belief in Jesus Christ? Would a school wherein a teacher discusses the recent federal healthcare legislation violate the provision mandating respect for authority should she criticize the law, or perhaps violate a respect for property if she speaks favorably of the individual insurance mandate in that law?

Currently, less than 40 percent of all known private schools in Indiana are accredited by the state. The majority of private schools, in other words, are subject to very few restrictions on educational freedom.

Because participating schools will have a significant financial advantage over non-participating schools, lightly regulated schools will face increasing financial pressure to participate. Over time, many of those who refuse to submit to state control will be driven out of business by competition from the highly regulated, but voucher-funded schools.

In other words, the voucher program will not only expand state control over and homogenize participating schools by requiring adherence to a single state-designed test, evaluation, and curriculum, it will also cut into the market for non-accredited schools. The likely effect is a serious loss of education freedom and diversity of options in the medium-term and a near-total loss in the long term.

The voucher law places private schools under the supervision of the state Department of Education, making them accountable to career bureaucrats and political appointees for performance on government standards and curriculum. It is an authorization and framework of accountability to the state, rather than to parents and taxpayers directly. This is a strategic victory for opponents of educational freedom; all that’s required is a downhill push for tighter control.

In our efforts to expand educational choice across the country, we can’t lose sight of what makes that choice valuable; educational freedom and the diversity of choices it allows to develop. School choice is meaningless if all the choices are the same.

Adam B. Schaeffer, Ph.D., is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.