Tag Archives: Indiana

Blue City, Red State, Home Rule

In the wake of Amazon’s choice of location for headquarters #2 (and the announcement that it was breaking the choice into two, one to be located in Queens and one in Crystal City–essentially, Washington, D.C.), Robert Reich wrote a provocative essay for Newsweek.

What does Amazon’s decision have to do with America’s political tumult? Turns out, quite a lot.

Amazon’s main headquarters is in Seattle, one of the bluest cities in the bluest of states. New York and metropolitan Washington are true-blue, too.

Amazon could have decided to locate its second headquarters in, say,  Indianapolis, Indiana. Indianapolis vigorously courted the firm. It’s also a Republican city in a bright red state.

Actually, Indianapolis–like every other sizable city in the country–is unambiguously blue. But we are located in a very, very red state.

Reich’s main point was that technology is a process of “group learning,” and it advances best in geographical clusters. Those clusters are primarily found along the coasts, where the digital economy has been a real boon. But Reich says that economy has left behind much of the rest of the country, with the result that we are facing what he calls “the widening inequalities of place.”

As money pours into these hubs, so do service jobs that cater to the new wealth—pricey lawyers, wealth managers, and management consultants, as well as cooks, baristas, and pilates instructors.

Between 2010 and 2017, according to Brookings, nearly half of the America’s employment growth centered in just 20 large metro areas, now home to about a third of the U.S. population.

Relative to these booming hubs, America’s heartland is becoming older, less well-educated, and poorer.

I think the reality of “America’s heartland” is more complicated than Reich recognizes. And that takes me back to his mistaken assumption that Indianapolis is a Republican city.

Cities in even the brightest red states have been blue for some time. We form what has been dubbed an “urban archipelago.” Furthermore, the inhabitants of these cities are engaged in a multitude of creative place-making, job-creating and poverty-reducing efforts.

Here in Indianapolis, for example, Community Development Corporations partner with the City, the Chamber of Commerce and a variety of nonprofit organizations to improve transit, health, education and job training, and to remove barriers to self-sufficiency. People may disagree about the likely efficacy or unintended consequences of this or that initiative, but the range of activity–and the good will motivating it–is impressive.

Indianapolis’ problem (which is not shared by every blue island swimming in a rural sea of red) can be found in Reich’s second descriptor: our red state. It isn’t Republican control of Indiana that’s the problem; it’s the fact that we are a state in which there is no meaningful home rule. Public officials in Indiana cities must go hat-in-hand to the state legislature (currently governed by an unimaginative GOP super-majority) to pursue many of the policy initiatives that other cities have authority to pursue as a matter of course.

Want to charge extra for plastic bags? No can do, sayeth our legislative overlords. In just the last few years, the Indiana legislature has also prevented cities from setting local minimum wages, and  from regulating housing, agricultural operations and worker schedules, among other things.

Perhaps the most egregious example of legislative arrogance involved Indianapolis’ proposal to tax ourselves to upgrade our inadequate transit system. It took three years just to get the legislature’s permission to hold a vote on the matter, and even then, the enabling legislation prohibited us from considering light rail. Why? Who knows?

As a column in the Indianapolis Star noted,  

A move to preempt local rules for services like Airbnb failed to get out of the Indiana House, but it was a rare setback for the never-ending march to scale back home rule. This year legislators successfully banned local zoning rules for certain utility poles and undermined so-called “good neighbor ordinances.”

(“Good neighbor” ordinances hold tenants accountable when they repeatedly inflict crimes and nuisances on their neighbors.)

The attorney who authored the column shared a number of other examples, and made a compelling case for giving greater authority to the people elected to govern municipalities.

The lack of ability to make our own decisions, based on the needs of our own residents, isn’t just making us less competitive for Amazon-sized sweepstakes.It is preventing us from improving everything from education to infrastructure to the quality of life in our city. Legislators who mostly represent the Indiana hinterlands consistently prevent us from reaching our full potential as a thriving urban oasis in a rural state that isn’t doing so well.

Urban residents of Indianapolis suspect that’s intentional.

 

Why We Blame The Victim

The Guardian recently ran a fascinating column explaining the evolutionary purpose of that all-too-human tendency to blame the victim.

Rape and sexual assault survivors are asked about what they wore and how they fought back. Poor people who work three jobs and still can’t support a family are blamed for “laziness” and failure, despite facing an economy that is stacked against them.

Recent research suggests that this tendency is actually a somewhat weird side effect of our human desire for fairness–a hard-wired “just world” bias.

The “just-world bias” happens because our brains crave predictability, and as such, we tend to blame victims of unfairness rather than reject the comforting worldview suggesting that good will be rewarded and evil punished.

“There’s just this really powerful urge for people to want to think good things to happen to good people and where the misperception comes in is that there’s this implied opposite: if something bad has happened to you, you must have done something bad to deserve that bad thing,” says Sherry Hamby, a professor of psychology at Sewanee University.

It isn’t only human victims who are blamed for their own misfortune.

Case in point: In Indiana, local school districts rely upon state and federal tax dollars to operate. Since 2011, state per-pupil funding has been dramatically reduced. Those reductions initially cost Indianapolis Public Schools $9.4 million annually; the last three years, however, the annual loss has been $15.5 million. Federal funding has dropped by $14.2 million annually since 2010, and Indiana’s insane tax caps have cost the district an average of $16.8 million every year since 2011.

Meanwhile, expenses—especially teacher compensation and benefits, which represent the majority of the budget—have continued to rise.

So far, the district has met these punishing shortfalls without altering the academic programs that have led to recent, much-needed educational improvements. It has closed schools in order to save the expenses of operating underused facilities and it has sold off unused buildings and other properties. Where possible, it has leased facilities to third parties, to generate rental income. It has reduced its central office operations by $5.3 million annually. It has deferred maintenance on its remaining properties in order to protect instructional programs and refinanced debt when favorable interest rates made that feasible.

As I write in an upcoming column in the local business journal,

There’s nothing left to sell. At some point, deferring maintenance is no longer possible. Meanwhile, teachers need to be paid and provided with health-care benefits; and special education students must have their costly needs met.

The district is currently proposing to raise just over 65 million dollars a year for 8 years. Of that amount, 74% would go for compensation, 12% would go for supplies and services, 11% would go for transportation, and 3% for building maintenance. If the Referendum fails, teacher pay will be frozen, some transportation services eliminated, and educational programs cut back.

Predictably, opponents blame the district for poor management. But all school districts in Indiana—including IPS–are the victims of decisions made in the Indiana Statehouse, and to a lesser extent, in Congress. Among other indignities, Mike Pence and the legislature successfully diverted tax dollars from public schools to parochial ones. Indiana has the country’s largest voucher program, and Ball State researchers report that 98% of Hoosier children using vouchers attend religious schools. Taxpayers sent $146.1 million dollars to voucher schools last year; since 2011, the number is $520 million dollars.

None of those decisions were made by local school districts.

Blaming the numerous public school districts in Indiana that have been forced to propose Referenda is like accusing the victim of a robbery of being imprudent with the stolen money.

 

 

Indiana–Always Last

The Hill recently reported on a number of states where 2018 will see raises in the minimum wage. Indiana, of course, was conspicuously absent from their list.

The lowest wage workers in 18 states will get a boost in their paychecks starting on New Year’s Day, as minimum wage hikes take effect.

Many of the wage hikes are phased-in steps toward an ultimately higher wage, the product of ballot initiatives pushed by unions and workers rights groups over the last few years.

The minimum wage in Washington state will rise to $11.50 an hour, up 50 cents and the highest statewide minimum in the nation. Over the next three years, the wage will rise to $13.50 an hour, thanks to a ballot measure approved by voters in 2016.

Mainers will see their minimum wages rise the most, from $9 an hour to $10 an hour, an 11 percent increase. Voters approved a ballot measure in 2016 that will eventually raise the wage to $12 an hour by 2020.

Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont will see their minimum wages increase by at least 50 cents an hour. Smaller increases take effect in Alaska, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio and South Dakota.

Our overlords at the Indiana Statehouse like to brag that keeping Indiana a “low wage” “right to work” state means we are attractive to businesses looking to relocate. What they don’t seem to understand is the flip side of the equation, beginning with the state’s inability to provide the quality of life amenities (not to mention smooth highways)  that appeal to businesses proposing to relocate. Higher wages would generate more tax dollars. Higher wages would also reduce the number of people who–despite working full-time–must depend upon social welfare programs funded by tax dollars simply to make ends meet.

I have posted before about the ALICE study, conducted a couple of years ago by Indiana’s United Ways. That study found

  • More than one in three Hoosier households cannot afford the basics of housing, food, health care and transportation, despite working hard.
  • 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 many 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.

Here in Indiana, we don’t seem to find ALICE poverty problematic or immoral, despite the fact that virtually all of us who are more privileged depend upon the services these people provide.

Even more immoral, in my humble opinion, is having my tax dollars effectively paying a portion of the wages of Walmart, McDonalds and other big employers’ workers. As I have previously posted,

Walmart generates nearly $500 billion in revenue annually; over the past five years, its yearly profits have averaged $15.5 billion dollars, and the family that owns it has a net worth of $129 billion dollars.

Despite its obvious ability to do so, the company declines to pay its employees a living wage, instead relying upon government programs–taxpayer dollars– to make up the difference between its workers’ paychecks and what they need to make ends meet. In essence, when a Walmart employee must rely on food stamps or other safety-net benefits, taxpayers are paying a portion of that employee’s wages.

Walmart (including its Sam’s Club operation) is currently the largest private employer in the country–and one of the largest recipients of corporate welfare. Walmart employees receive an estimated $6.2 billion dollars in taxpayer-funded subsidies each year. Money not paid out in salary goes directly to the shareholders’ bottom line.

The Indiana legislature declines to offer even a modicum of help to the third of Hoosiers who are working for below-subsistence wages, but they are evidently happy to continue subsidizing the wealthy.

The Hoosier bottom line.

Choice And Consequences

As regular readers of this blog know (and as yesterday’s post confirmed) I am not a fan of school vouchers. My concerns range from the philosophical to the practical, and the emerging research has confirmed most of the practical ones.

One consequence of voucher programs that is rarely, if ever, addressed (although, I will immodestly point out that I have addressed it): the unfair impact on small towns. Vouchers were first promoted as a way to allow poor kids to escape failing inner-city schools. (Ignore, for now, the fact that in Indiana, at least, most vouchers are being used by white kids who are leaving non-failing schools for religious ones…).

Most small towns don’t have enough students to support an alternative to the public school. Since most private schools accepting vouchers are in cities large enough to have inner-cities and multiple schools, and since they are receiving tax dollars paid by people throughout the state, small towns are effectively subsidizing private schools in more metropolitan areas.

Recently, I came across an illustration of this inequity. It’s a story from Stinesville, Indiana, a town I will readily admit I’d never heard of, although I was born (and will undoubtedly die) in Indiana.

With the largest private school voucher program in the country, and a charter sector that has grown “explosively,” Indiana is a poster state for the kinds of education policies pushed by President Trump and his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. But for small rural communities, the growth of school choice over the past six years is now forcing another choice: whether to close the public schools that are at their heart as competing schools pull students and money away. As vouchers and charters were sold to voters, the cost to small towns like Stinesville, IN, where officials voted this week to shutter the elementary school, was left out of the sales pitch.

The article reports on a school board meeting held just last month, at which the decision to close the school was the agenda item.

On this night, October 18, 2017, despite the sleepy look of the downtown street, there is nothing sleepy about school’s parking lot. It is packed. Inside, the gym is full of people, filling the folding chairs that have been set on the floor, and squeezing into the bleachers. Many are wearing red. There are parents with young children, teenagers, and plenty of older people too.

The superintendent explained why he advocated closing Stinesville Elementary School and busing the children to Ellettsville, population 6,600, six miles away: declining enrollment, declining funds and escalating costs.

So what does this have to do with vouchers? The article explains.

As the voucher and charter programs were explained and advertised as “school choice” to the public, one corollary fact was not included: Indiana residents might lose a choice that many of us have taken for granted for decades—the ability to send our kids to a local, well-resourced public school. The kind of school that serves lunch and participates in the federal school lunch program. The kind of school that provides transportation. The kind of school that has certified teachers and a library and is in a district obligated by law to accept all children in the attendance area, including those with profound special needs, and to provide them a free and appropriate public education….

Governor Daniels cut $300 million from the state budget for K-12 in 2009, during the recession. That money was never replaced even as the economy began to recover. Indiana voters wrote tax caps into the state constitution through a referendum in 2010, weakening the ability of local governments to provide services.

Since 2011, public dollars being diverted from the public school system to charters and vouchers have ballooned. By the end of 2015, according to an analysis done by the Legislative Services Agency at the request of Democratic state representative Ed Delaney, $920 million had been spent on charters and vouchers. From its inception in 2011 through the 2016-2017 school year, the voucher program cost Indiana taxpayers $516.5 million.

The article documents the dollars diverted to religious schools from Stinesville’s public school, which had been ranked as one of the state’s most effective, and references research on the negative effects suffered by small communities that lose their schools.

I notice that proponents of “school choice” never discuss these issues.

 

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.