Tag Archives: Indiana

It Really Isn’t About the Quality of Education

No one who watched Mike Pence dramatically expand Indiana’s voucher program at the expense of the state’s public schools, and certainly no one who has followed the appointment and appalling performance of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, could come away thinking “Boy, those people really care about education!”

Despite their rhetoric, Pence, DeVos and a number of other proponents of “educational choice” have a decidedly religious agenda. DeVos has been quoted as saying that vouchers will usher in “God’s kingdom.” Pence’s voucher program hasn’t improved educational outcomes, but it has financially benefitted the religious schools that participate.

And the religious schools that do participate in Indiana’s voucher program have seen to it that some children don’t even have that much-touted “choice.” As Chalkbeat recently reported,

When it comes to school choice, options are more limited for Indiana’s LGBT students.

Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington recently made headlines for promising students an excellent, “biblically integrated” education — unless they identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The school also received more than $650,000 in public funds last year through the state’s voucher program.

In Indiana, over 34,299 students used vouchers to attend a private school last fall, making it the largest such program in the country. It’s also a program that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has applauded — which means Indiana offers a helpful glimpse at how a DeVos-led national expansion of vouchers might shape up.

Our investigation found that roughly one in 10 of Indiana’s voucher schools publicly shares a policy suggesting or declaring that LGBT students are not welcome. Together, the 27 schools received over $16 million in public funds for participating last year.

Many private, religious schools are also accredited by a group that provides advice about how to turn away LGBT students. Given that nearly 20 percent of schools do not publicize their admissions policies, the true number of schools with anti-LGBT policies is unclear.

Of the 27 schools with explicitly anti-LGBT policies, 14 were accredited by the Association of Christian Schools International, a pro school-choice group that provides its members with a handbook titled “Steps Your School Can Take When Dealing With Homosexual Issues.”

The Chalkbeat article quotes religious school officials who stress the importance of respecting the religious views of schools operated by different denominations. I have no quarrel with respecting their right to teach their beliefs; I do have a quarrel with their right to have those beliefs subsidized with my tax dollars.

In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Supreme Court ruled that vouchers to religious schools did not violate the religion clauses of the First Amendment, because the vouchers (theoretically) went to the parents, who were free to use them at either religious or secular schools. The problem with this approach is the same as the problem facing gay children in Indiana: the “choice” is illusory, because virtually all of the participating schools are religious.

Charter schools–which are still public schools– manage to operate while being subject to the same constitutional and civil rights constraints that apply to traditional public schools. There’s no reason that private schools–religious or not– that benefit from voucher dollars shouldn’t be required to do likewise.

Of course, at some point, Hoosiers are going to have to face up to the fact that although vouchers do not improve student’s test scores, they certainly do improve the bottom lines of participating religious schools.

Despite being marketed as a way to give parents a “choice” to enroll their children in “better” schools, Indiana’s vouchers are simply a financial windfall for religious schools at the expense of our public schools. And if a few LGBTQ kids face discrimination, well that’s just too bad.

It certainly doesn’t bother DeVos and Pence.

Not Equal In Indiana. Not Surprising.

A friend sent me a link to a research report issued by the Williams Institute at UCLA’s School of Law. The abstract pretty much says it all:

Approximately 133,000 LGBT workers in Indiana are not explicitly protected from discrimination under state law. Discrimination against LGBT employees in Indiana has been documented in court cases, administrative complaints, and other sources. Many corporate employers and public opinion in Indiana support protections for LGBT people in the workplace. If sexual orientation and gender identity were added to existing statewide non-discrimination laws, 61 additional complaints of discrimination would be filed with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission each year. Adding these characteristics to existing law would not be costly or burdensome for the state to enforce.

Recent polling discloses that 73% of Indiana residents support the inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected class under Indiana’s existing civil rights law. That’s 73% in Very Red Indiana.

Major employers in the state have worked with civil rights and civil liberties organizations in an effort to add “four little words” to the list of categories protected under the state’s civil rights statute:  sexual orientation and gender identity. So far, the legislature has exhibited zero interest in doing so.

I still remember a discussion in my undergraduate Law and Policy class a few years ago–at a time when the state was embroiled in debate over Mike Pence’s infamous effort to ensure that Hoosiers have the “religious freedom” to discriminate against their LGBTQ neighbors. An African-American student was stunned to learn that, in Indiana, an employer could legally fire someone simply for being gay.

Shaking her head, she said “Black people often don’t get justice, but at least there’s a law on the books! At least there’s an official position that discrimination against us is wrong!”

The public outrage over Pence’s RFRA led to a subsequent “clarification” (cough cough) that the measure would not override provisions of local Human Rights Ordinances that do proscribe discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. A number of city councils around the state promptly added those protections to their Ordinances, which was gratifying.

The problem, as the research points out, is twofold: municipal ordinances in Indiana don’t have much in the way of “teeth.” They are more symbolic than legally effective. Worse, for LGBTQ folks who don’t live in one of those municipalities, there are no protections at all.

The result: Only 36% of Indiana’s workforce is covered by local non-discrimination laws or executive orders that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And that discrimination occurs with depressing regularity.

– In response to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 75 percent of respondents from Indiana reported experiencing harassment or mistreatment at work, 30 percent reported losing a job, 21 percent reported being denied a promotion, and 48% reported not being hired because of their gender identity or expression at some point in their lives.

– Several recent instances of employment discrimination against LGBT people in Indiana have been documented in court cases and administrative complaints, including reports from public and private sector workers.

– Census data show that in Indiana, the median income of men in same-sex couples is 34 percent lower than that of men married to different-sex partners.

– Aggregated data from two large public opinion polls found that 79 percent of Indiana residents think that LGBT people experience a moderate amount to a lot of discrimination in the state.

Four little words. Why is that so hard?

A Hoosier Cautionary Tale

First Kansas. Now Indiana. One by one, the pillars of conservative fundamentalism are failing real-world tests.

Under then-Governor Pence, Indiana negotiated a much-ballyhood 35-year “public-private partnership” with the Spanish firm Insolux Corsan to build and maintain a portion of Interstate 69, between Bloomington and Indianapolis. The project has dragged on and on, making trips between Bloomington and Indianapolis slow and treacherous. (I know this from personal experience; faculty of IU routinely make the trip between campuses, and I’ve done my share of cursing while in transit.)

The original contract called for a completion date of October, 2016; that date has been pushed back four times amid media reports suggesting that the state’s private partner was as slow in paying subcontractors as it was in building the highway. Now, it appears the contractor is going bankrupt. The Indianapolis Star reports that the state “intends to take control of the troubled I-69 project from Bloomington to Martinsville as the public-private partnership used to finance and build the highway crumbles.”

It is a GOP article of faith that the private sector is always more efficient and more competent than government, and that contracting out–privatization–saves money. In the uncongenial place called the real world, it seldom works out that way. The collapse–or “crumbling”–of this particular partnership joins a long line of failed privatization schemes, some scandalous and corrupt, many simply ineffective and expensive, that have ended up costing taxpayers more than if government had done the job.

This isn’t to say that contracting out is always a bad idea. As I’ve said repeatedly, the issue isn’t whether to work with the private sector, but when and how. Public officials need to carefully evaluate proposed contracting arrangements: is this something government routinely does, or an unusual task requiring specialized expertise that the agency doesn’t have? If the motive is saving money, how realistic is that? (After all, private entities have to pay taxes, and their bids will reflect that expense.) Does the contracting agency have the expertise needed to properly negotiate the contract and monitor the contractor? Have all the risks been weighed, and due diligence exercised?

Do the officials making the decision recognize that contracting with a third party won’t relieve the government agency of its ultimate responsibility to see that the project is properly completed or the service is properly rendered?

Are there situations where public-private partnerships are both appropriate and competently structured? Of course. The Brookings Institution recently reported on the success of the Copenhagen City and Port Development Corporation in revitalizing Copenhagen’s waterfront. I was particularly struck by this description of that effort:

The approach deploys an innovative institutional vehicle—a publicly owned, privately run corporation—to achieve the high-level management and value appreciation of assets more commonly found in the private sector while retaining development profits for public use.(emphasis mine)

Two elements of this particular partnership stand out: (1) it was formed to execute a lengthy, difficult and highly complex project requiring skills that few municipal governments have in-house; and (2) it distributed risk and reward in a way that ensured taxpayers would benefit financially from the project’s success.

In contrast, virtually every American contract I’ve seen has socialized the risk and privatized the reward; that is, taxpayers have assumed the risks of cost overruns, unanticipated problems and project failures, while the private contractors have reaped the lions’ share of the profits.(Trump’s infrastructure plan–to the extent it exists–would take that formula to new heights. Or lows…)

I69 and the Indianapolis parking meter fiasco are just two of the more recent examples of what happens when privatization is a mantra–a semi-religious belief–rather than one of several strategically deployed tools in the public toolbox.

Personal P.S. Thanks to all of you who posted good wishes for my husband’s surgery. All went well, and he’s home (with a very rakish temporary eye patch).

Human Rights, Equal Rights, Political Rights

Last night, I spoke at the annual dinner of the Columbus, Indiana, Human Rights Commission. Here’s what I said (sorry for the length…):

________________________

Over the past several years, American political debate has become steadily less civil. Partisan passions have overwhelmed sober analysis, and the Internet allows people to choose their news (and increasingly, their preferred realities). During the recent election cycle, it was clear that in many cases, Americans were talking past each other rather engaging with opponents through thoughtful public discourse.

I am firmly convinced that an enormous amount of this rancor and partisan nastiness is a result of what I call civic illiteracy—widespread ignorance of the historical foundations and basic premises of American government. I don’t want to belabor this lack of civic literacy, but I do want to share some statistics that should concern all of us. A few years ago, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs asked high school seniors in that state some simple questions about government. Let me share a few of those questions and the percentages of students who answered them correctly:

  • What is the supreme law of the land? 28%
  • What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution? 26%
  • What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress? 27%
  • Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? 14%
  • What are the two major political parties in the United States? 43%
  • We elect a U.S. senator for how many years? 11%
  • Who was the first President of the United States? 23%

Only 36 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government. Fewer than half of 12th graders can describe federalism. Only 35% can identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. Only five percent of high school seniors can identify or explain checks on presidential power. (There’s a lot more depressing research on IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy website.)

Why does it matter? Well, for one thing, productive civic engagement is based on an accurate understanding of the “rules of the game,” especially but not exclusively the Constitution and Bill of Rights– the documents that frame policy choices in the American system.

Understanding the history and philosophy that shaped what I call “the American Idea” is critically important for understanding the roots of our national approach to human rights.

The American Constitution was a product of the 18th Century cultural, intellectual and philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment. Most of us know that the Enlightenment gave us science, empirical inquiry, and the “natural rights” and “social contract” theories of government, but what is less appreciated is that the Enlightenment also changed the way we understand and define human rights and individual liberty.

 We are taught in school that the Puritans and Pilgrims who settled the New World came to America for religious liberty; what we aren’t generally taught is how they defined liberty. Puritans saw liberty as “freedom to do the right thing”—freedom to worship and obey the right God in the true church, and their right to use the power of government to ensure that their neighbors toed the same line. The Founders who crafted our constitution some 150 years later were products of an intervening paradigm change brought about by the Enlightenment and its dramatically different definition of liberty.

America’s constitutional system is based on an Enlightenment concept we call “negative liberty.” The Founders believed that our fundamental rights are not given to us by government; instead, they believed that rights are “natural,” meaning that we are entitled to certain rights simply by virtue of being human (thus the term “human rights”) and that government has an obligation to respect and protect those inborn, inalienable rights.

Contrary to popular belief, the Bill of Rights does not grant us rights—it protects the rights to which we are entitled by virtue of being human against infringement by an overzealous government. The American Bill of Rights is essentially a list of things that government is forbidden to do. For example, the state cannot dictate our religious or political beliefs, search us without probable cause, or censor our expression—and government is forbidden from doing these things even when popular majorities favor such actions. 

In our system, those constraints don’t apply to private, non-governmental actors. As I used to tell my kids, the government can’t control what you read, but your mother can. Public school officials can’t tell you to pray, but private or parochial school officials can. If government isn’t involved, neither is the Constitution. Private, non-governmental actors are subject to other laws, like civil rights laws, but since the Bill of Rights only restrains what government can do, only government can violate it. I’m constantly amazed by how many Americans don’t understand that.

Unlike the liberties protected against government infringement by the Bill of Rights, civil rights laws represent our somewhat belated recognition that if we care about human rights, just preventing government from discriminating isn’t enough. If private employers can refuse to hire African-Americans or women, if landlords can refuse to rent units in multifamily buildings to LGBTQ folks, if restaurants can refuse to serve Jews or Muslims, then the broader society is not respecting the human rights of those citizens and we aren’t fulfilling the obligations of the social contract that was another major contribution of Enlightenment philosophy.

The Enlightenment concept of human rights and John Locke’s theory of a social contract between citizens and their government challenged longtime assumptions about the divine right of kings. Gradually, people came to be seen as citizens, rather than subjects. The new concept of human rights also helped to undermine the once-common practice of assigning social status on the basis of group identity.

The once-radical idea that each of us is born with the same claim to human rights has other consequences. For one thing, it means that governments have to treat their citizens as individuals, not as members of a group. America was the first country to base its laws upon a person’s civic behavior, not gender, race, religion or other identity or affiliation. So long as we obey the laws, pay our taxes, and generally conduct ourselves in a way that doesn’t endanger or disadvantage others, we are all entitled to full civic equality, no matter what our race, religion, gender or other identity. When our country has lived up to that guarantee of equal civic rights, we have unleashed the productivity of previously marginalized groups and contributed significantly to American prosperity. And I think it is fair to say that—despite setbacks, and despite the stubborn persistence of racial resentments, religious intolerance and misogyny, we have made substantial progress toward a culture that acknowledges the equal humanity of the people who make up our diverse nation. So on that scale, good for us!

In addition to civic equality, however, respect for human rights also requires democratic equality—an equal right to participate in self-government. We now recognize—or at least give lip service to—the proposition that every citizen’s vote should count, but on this dimension of human rights, we not only aren’t making progress, we’re regressing, as anyone who follows the news can attest.

One element of civic literacy that gets short shrift even among educators is the immense influence of systems in a society—an appreciation of the way in which institutions and conventions and laws shape our understanding of our environments, and obscure our recognition of social problems. Right now, longstanding practices are obscuring the degree to which American democracy is becoming steadily less democratic—and the extent to which we are denying citizens the human right to participate meaningfully in self-government.

Vote suppression has been on the rise, especially but not exclusively in Southern states that have not been required to get preclearance from the Justice Department since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. Thanks to population shifts, the current operation of the Electoral College gives disproportionate weight to the votes of white rural voters, and discounts the franchise of urban Americans. Ever since Buckley v. Valeo, which equated money with speech, and especially since Citizens United, which essentially held that corporations are people, money spent by special interests has overwhelmed the votes and opinions of average citizens.

The most pernicious erosion of “one person, one vote” however, has come as a consequence of gerrymandering, or partisan redistricting. There are no “good guys” in this story—gerrymandering is a crime of opportunity, and both political parties are guilty.

Those of you in this room know the drill; after each census, state governments redraw state and federal district lines to reflect population changes. The party in control of the state legislature at the time controls the redistricting process, and they draw districts that maximize their own electoral prospects and minimize those of the opposing party. Partisan redistricting goes all the way back to Elbridge Gerry, who gave Gerrymandering its name—and he signed the Declaration of Independence—but the process became far more sophisticated and precise with the advent of computers, leading to a situation which has been aptly described as legislators choosing their voters, rather than the other way around.

Academic researchers and political reformers alike blame gerrymandering for electoral non-competitiveness and political polarization. A 2008 book co-authored by Republican Norman Orenstein and Democrat Thomas Mann argued that the decline in competition fostered by gerrymandering has entrenched partisan behavior and diminished incentives for compromise and bipartisanship.

Mann and Orenstein have written extensively about redistricting, and about “packing” (creating districts with supermajorities of the opposing party) “cracking” (distributing members of the opposing party among several districts to ensure that they don’t have a majority in any of them) and “tacking” (expanding the boundaries of a district to include a desirable group from a neighboring district). They have tied redistricting to the advantages of incumbency, and they have also pointed out that the reliance by House candidates upon maps drawn by state-level politicians has reinforced what they call “partisan rigidity”– the increasing nationalization of the political parties.

Interestingly, one study they cited investigated whether representatives elected from districts drawn by independent commissions become less partisan. Contrary to their initial expectations, the researchers found that politically independent redistricting did reduce partisanship, and in statistically significant ways, even when the same party retained control.

Perhaps the most pernicious effect of gerrymandering is the proliferation of safe seats. Safe districts breed voter apathy and reduce political participation. After all, why should citizens get involved if the result is foreordained? Why donate to a sure loser? (For that matter, unless you are trying to buy political influence for some reason, why donate to a sure winner?) What is the incentive to volunteer or vote when it obviously won’t matter? It isn’t only voters who lack incentives for participation, either: it becomes increasingly difficult for the “sure loser” party to recruit credible candidates. As a result, in many of these races, voters are left with no genuine or meaningful choice.  Ironically, the anemic voter turnout that gerrymandering produces leads to handwringing about citizen apathy, usually characterized as a civic or moral deficiency. But voter apathy may instead be a highly rational response to noncompetitive politics. People save their efforts for places where those efforts count, and thanks to the increasing lack of competitiveness in our electoral system, those places often do not include the voting booth.

If the ability to participate meaningfully in self-governance is a human right, partisan game-playing that makes elections meaningless should be seen as an assault on human rights. And increasingly, it is.

Safe districts do more than disenfranchise voters; they are the single greatest driver of governmental dysfunction. In safe districts, the only way to oppose an incumbent is in the primary–and that almost always means that the challenge will come from the “flank” or extreme. When the primary is, in effect, the general election, the battle takes place among the party faithful, who also tend to be the most ideological voters. So Republican incumbents will be challenged from the Right and Democratic incumbents will be attacked from the Left. Even where those challenges fail, they create a powerful incentive for incumbents to “toe the line”— to placate the most rigid elements of their respective parties. Instead of the system working as intended, with both parties nominating candidates they think will be most likely to appeal to the broader constituency, the system produces nominees who represent the most extreme voters on each side of the philosophical divide.

The consequence of this ever-more-precise state-level and Congressional district gerrymandering has been a growing philosophical gap between the parties, each with an empowered, rigidly ideological base intent on punishing any deviation from orthodoxy and/or any hint of compromise.

A study done by researchers at the University of Chicago concluded that Indiana is the fifth most gerrymandered state in the country. We had a chance to change that system in the just-concluded legislative session; Representative Jerry Torr, a good government Republican, introduced a measure that was co-sponsored by Brian Bosma, the Republican Speaker of the House. Thanks to efforts by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, the public came out in droves from all over Indiana in a massive show of support for the bill; however, the chair of the Elections Committee, Milo Smith, refused to allow his committee even to vote on it, and killed it.

In the United States, we tend to think of Human Rights in terms of legal rights: equality before the law, an equal right to participate in democratic governance and to have our preferences count at the ballot box. But most of us recognize the existence of non-legal challenges to full realization of equal human rights. Poverty is one; a citizen working two or three jobs just to put food on the table doesn’t have much time for civic engagement, and in Indiana, that’s a lot of people.

In 2014, the United Ways of Indiana took a hard look at “Alice.” Alice is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed; it applies to households with income above the federal poverty level, but below the actual, basic cost of living. The report was eye-opening.

  • More than one in three Hoosier households cannot afford the basics of housing, food, health care and transportation, despite working 40 or more hours a week.
  • In Indiana, 37% of households live below the Alice threshold, with some 14% below the poverty level and another 23% above poverty but below the cost of living.
  • These families and individuals have jobs, and most do not qualify for social services or support.
  • The jobs they are filling are critically important to Hoosier communities. These are our child care workers, laborers, movers, home health aides, heavy truck drivers, store clerks, repair workers and office assistants—yet they are unsure if they’ll be able to put dinner on the table each night.

ALICE families don’t have time or energy for civic participation or political engagement through which to exercise their human and civil rights. Human Rights Commissions lack the jurisdiction to address ALICE inequities, but we all need to recognize that people preoccupied by a daily struggle for subsistence are unable to participate fully in the formation and conduct of civic society.

How can our civic institutions—including local Human Rights Commissions– help guarantee citizens’ human rights?

Human Rights Commissions can act when employers or owners of public accommodations violate local ordinances. Indiana also has a civil rights law, although it currently omits protection against discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity, and the federal government has several agencies charged with enforcement of civil rights—although recent statements from Administration officials have called their commitment to doing so into question. Local to federal, these agencies are important, and the work they do is critical to social stability and fundamental fairness.

Critical as they are, there are rights violations these agencies cannot address or solve. Reversing the erosion of America’s democratic norms, turning back the assault on equal access to the ballot box, and fixing the gerrymandering that makes too many votes meaningless will require political action and persistent civic engagement by an informed, civically-literate citizenry. We all have a stake in improving civic knowledge and encouraging informed participation, because safeguarding human rights ultimately depends upon the existence of a civically-informed electorate.

It won’t be easy, but We the People can do this.

 

 

Activism Engine is Live!

I don’t usually clog your inboxes with “extra” posts, but I’m making an exception.

As many of you recall, I posted a few weeks ago about a tool my son was creating to make activism simpler. He is a web developer, and his goal was to help people who wanted to make a difference but were neither “tech savvy” nor previously politically involved.

If you missed those posts, they are here and here.

Just to remind you, on the site you can search for issues of concern at either the state or national level, in one of three ways: you can look for pending legislation, you can see what sorts of direct actions–meetings, rallies, petitions, marches, etc.–are upcoming, and you can find a list of organizations working on those issues. You can then take action on items–you can call your lawmakers, you can send emails, join or contribute to an organization, attend events…the list goes on.

And you can track all of your activity and impact on a myActivism dashboard.

What is really cool is that you can call up a current list of every elected official who represents you– from the President on down to City Councillor– with clickable phone numbers and email links to directly contact them.

And it’s all really intuitive and SIMPLE to use. Visit and see!

For the next couple of weeks, my son will be “beta testing” the site in Indiana–people who have signed up (nearly 300 so far) will use the site and let him know if they encounter bugs or problems. When he’s confident the site is working as intended, it will be rolled out nationally.

If we are going to resist what I am beginning to call the “Trump coup,” we need involvement by every good citizen who is disheartened and/or terrified by what is happening in and to our country. This tool makes that involvement much simpler and easier.

I hope you will use it, and share it widely! And if you are politically or civically engaged, I hope you will sign up to provide information about pending bills and actions. Without that “on the ground” information, the site won’t do what it is designed to do.

Activism Engine is live!