May 16, 2011 6:19PM

Chief Seattle Declares Indiana’s Voucher Program Bad for Mother Earth

Educational freedom is nothing to trifle with, all the more so because we have so little of it left. And yet there is little serious discussion about it among school choice policy researchers and activists. All that seems to matter is the expansion of “choice” at nearly any cost.

A blog response, of sorts, to my recent piece explaining why the Indiana voucher law is a defeat for educational freedom, just came to my attention (curse ye, fickle gods of googlealerts). If it weren’t written by a respected researcher, Greg Forster, posted on Jay Greene’s blog, I’d ignore the bullet‐​point simulacrum of an argument.

We need more serious debate. Argument makes for better thinking and better policy. There are valid points on many sides of this issue, and everyone makes errors in fact or logic. So please, I encourage someone to tear into all of the arguments against the new Indiana voucher law and explain why my concerns are misplaced. Chief Seattle, as all good schoolchildren in Indiana know, proves that wise words can change the world.

On Forster’s Point 1, he and the Indiana Non‐​Public Education Association are simply incorrect … less than 40% of known private schools are accredited, and they remain less than a majority even when you remove the Amish ones. This is not an opinion, it is a fact based on good data available on the state DOE website, and I have found a number of very friendly and helpful DOE employees (they don’t all respond like the finance folks) who can give further context and slight revisions to these published numbers. Beyond that fact, Indiana’s voucher law actually imposes some regulations not currently imposed even on accredited schools.

On Point 2, Forster doesn’t even attempt to engage the point I make in my article for why the freedom not to participate is no argument against the destructiveness of the regulatory framework. 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. Andrew Coulson has demonstrated this process of expanding state control with voucher programs outside the US, and regulatory burden and creep here at home.

In Point 3, Forster dismisses the slew of new private school regulations as unimportant without, apparently, knowing precisely what they entail. You can read through the bill that was signed here. The most concerning requirements are not a part of state accreditation, they are new to schools participating in the Indiana voucher program. For instance, voucher schools in Indiana are required to stress the importance of “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?

And the law expects enforcement, reading, “The department shall, at a minimum, annually visit each eligible school and charter school to verify that the eligible school or charter school complies with the provisions of [the voucher law].” Furthermore, “Each eligible school, public school, and charter school shall grant the department full access to its premises, including access to any points of ingress to and egress from the school’s grounds, buildings, and property for observing classroom instruction and reviewing any instructional materials and curriculum.”

There is more to mull over in my article and in Indiana’s new voucher law.

Forster’s Point 4 is a ridiculous non sequitur. The state can regulate curriculum in any way it wants to, therefore it doesn’t matter if it does so or not. Here is in full:

“The state already has virtually unlimited authority to regulate private school curricula, especially in the name of ‘good citizenship.’ The Supreme Court has given states more or less a blank check to control private school curricula, and the state has especially strong authority to require, and control the content of, “citizenship” education. The existence of a voucher program changes little in this regard.”

I wonder if Forster feels the same way about healthcare; “The state can require whatever it wants for health insurance, so it doesn’t matter whether or not they have a state agency review them for adequacy or impose detailed coverage requirements.” What’s the big fuss?

It would be wonderful if everyone who pays lip service to concerns regarding educational freedom and the expansion of state control would take the matter seriously enough to familiarize themselves with the basic, relevant facts. We might just have a good and productive argument.