The universe of education reform received a dose of energy as news spread of the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the state’s voucher (i.e. Choice Scholarship) program.
Amidst the commotion, what came to mind most immediately to me, as the former director of Indiana’s voucher program, was a blinking red light – more specifically, the red light on my phone back when I worked for the Department of Education.
Indiana’s choice scholarship legislation passed in late April 2011. A few weeks prior to passage, department leadership assigned me the task of developing a plan to implement it. This had nothing to do with counting chickens and everything to do with the (draft) legislation’s requirement to have the program ready for the 2011-12 school year.
That blinking red light on my phone was the key. It signaled that I had voicemail—typically quite a few—from parents, school administrators, department colleagues and various stakeholder groups. The ability to separate the urgent from the important messages would be vital.
That light also scared the hell out of me. Often the voicemails would require a return call to a parent whose child would not be eligible. This was especially hard, because I always had school choice—in the form of my dad’s checkbook. The first evening I spent in Indiana was for a visit to my eventual alma mater, Notre Dame. My parents could afford to send me there, and could afford tuition to the private high school that pushed me hard enough to get there in the first place.
Democracy is obviously a process. Everyone does not get everything they want. And yet there were days in 2011 when I walked out of the office feeling like I was playing God. Returning calls to parents of eligible children was wonderful; breaking the news to parents of ineligible students was heart-breaking.
Difficult as that was, I cannot even begin to grasp what it would be like to inform parents that a program to keep their child at a good school was being taken away. And I doubt that the plaintiffs who sued to block the program would have volunteered to help call all these parents had the Court struck it down.
The Court’s decision should be seen as a beginning, though—not a time to rest. The upheld program still contains eligibility gaps. Indiana should push to reduce these gaps and resist the temptation for dollars to follow buildings and systems rather than students. Choice of service provider has been good enough when taxpayers participate in tax-funded Medicare and Medicaid, and it’s been good enough for the state’s financial aid programs for higher education. Parents can be trusted.
Congratulations to former Governor Mitch Daniels, Governor Pence, now-Florida Superintendent Tony Bennett, Representative Bob Behning, and the Indiana General Assembly for their courage in facing the special interests and doing the right thing for children. The day is now brighter knowing that my successor will have more good news than bad when that red light is blinking.
About the author
Neil serves as a Regional Advocacy Director at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He came to the Foundation after 3½ years with the Indiana Department of Education, first as legislative liaison and policy advisor and most recently as director of the Hoosier state’s new school voucher program. Neil has also served as a policy analyst for Educational Testing Service, and began his career on the staff of then-U.S. Senator George Voinovich. A native Ohioan, Neil is a proud graduate of Notre Dame and holds a Masters degree from Johns Hopkins. He is also a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan. Neil serves as the Regional Advocacy Director for the Central region and his portfolio of states includes: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Contact Neil at Neil@excelined.org