Tag Archives: Indiana

Indiana’s School Voucher Program–The Back Story

Toward the end of yesterday’s post about high-stakes testing, I noted that its largest-in-the-nation voucher program illustrated Indiana’s penchant for simple answers to complicated questions.

I have friends who sincerely believe that “school choice” will help poor children escape failing public schools, and none of the careful academic research that documents voucher schools’ generally poor academic results convinces them otherwise. “Private” is a word like “shazam!”– magically opening imaginary doors.

Critics of Indiana’s voucher program tend to place the most blame on Mike Pence, but a recent series of articles identifies Mitch Daniels as the political brains behind Indiana’s program. Pence certainly expanded it–and engineered amendments to ensure that religious schools, rather than other private institutions, would be the major beneficiaries. (In Indiana, some 92% of vouchers are used to attend religious schools, virtually all Christian and a sizable number fundamentalist.)

No one who knows Mike Pence, however, would describe him as the brains of any operation. That accolade belongs to Mitch Daniels.

After noting that five years after the program was established, more than half of the state’s voucher recipients had never attended Indiana public schools–failing or not–and that Hoosier taxpayers are now covering private and religious school tuition for children whose parents had previously footed that bill, the author proceeded to describe the voucher program as an outgrowth of a conversation at a dinner party hosted by Steve Hilbert, at which Daniels is quoted as saying “There is no reason even debating the abysmal, atrocious failure of the public school monopoly anymore.”

In the years that followed, three of those dinner guests — Daniels, Pence and Klipsch — would be major players in the quest to privatize traditional public education in Indiana.

Klipsch would start and run a political action committee, Hoosiers for Economic Growth (a.k.a. Hoosiers for Quality Education), that would play a major role in creating a Republican majority in the Indiana House to redistrict the state to assure future Republican control.

In 1996, however, there were no charter schools in Indiana, nor were there virtual schools or vouchers. Neighborhood public schools served communities in a state that had always taken a “liberal and leading role” in providing public education for its children.

Twenty-one years later, Hoosier public schools were showing the effects of 15 years of what the article characterizes as “relentless attack.”

Entire public school systems in Indiana cities, such as Muncie and Gary, had been decimated by funding losses, even as a hodgepodge of ineffective charter and voucher schools sprang up to replace them. Charter school closings and scandals were commonplace, with failing charters sometimes flipped into failing voucher schools. Many of the great public high schools of Indianapolis were closed from a constant churn of reform directed by a “mindtrust” infatuated with portfolio management of school systems.

The author traced the decline to Daniels.

After his election, Daniels quickly laid the groundwork for creating a system based on the belief that the market principle of competition would improve education outcomes and drive down costs. Under the guise of property tax reform, Daniels seized control of school funding by legislating that the state would pay the largest share of district costs known as the general fund, while giving localities the responsibility for paying for debt service, capital projects, transportation and bus replacement. Daniels and the legislature also made sure that districts would be hamstrung in raising their local share by capping property taxes so that they could not exceed 1 percent of a home’s assessed value. The poorer the town, the less money the district could raise.

The remainder of the lengthy article traces the changes to Indiana education made by Daniels and Tony Bennett, his chosen Superintendent of Public Instruction–changes funded by Betsy DeVos’s foundation. I encourage you to click through and read the article in its entirety. And weep.

My only quibble is with the author’s obvious belief that Daniels’ assault on public education was motivated by a malevolent intent to privatize the state’s schools. Unlike Pence, Mitch Daniels is a highly intelligent man. He is also thoroughly political and ideological. My guess is that he drank deeply from the well of GOP dogma, and believes–with an almost religious fervor, evidence be damned– that the private sector is always superior to the public sector. (Why so many people who clearly believe this nevertheless spend their professional lives in the public sector is an enduring mystery.)

So here we are. Vouchers have increased religious and racial segregation without improving academic performance. Meanwhile, public schools are struggling to perform without adequate resources, and the state’s underpaid teachers are leaving in droves.

Did Indiana’s schools need improvement? Absolutely. Were vouchers an appropriate or effective remedy? Absolutely not.

That’s what happens when ideology trumps evidence.

 

The Hidden Hand

When I hear the term “hidden hand,”  I immediately think of Adam Smith. But a couple of weeks ago, I came across a very different definition of that term–one that resonated with me.

Published by a think-tank called “Support Democracy,”the article addressed the growing problem of pre-emption, which it dubbed “the hidden hand.” In Indiana, we’ve had that problem as long as I can remember; it’s what I fulminate about when I decry local government’s lack of home rule.

Many of America’s cities, towns, and counties have less power than they did at the start of the year to protect the health and safety of their communities or to respond to the unique needs and values of their residents. That’s because between January and June 2019, state legislatures across the nation continued a troubling trend of passing more laws forbidding or “preempting” local control over a large and growing set of public health, economic, environmental, and social justice policy solutions. This legislative session, state lawmakers made it illegal for locally-elected officials to enact a plastic bag ban in Tennessee, raise revenues in Oregon, regulate e-cigarettes in Arkansas, establish minimum wages in North Dakota, protect county residents from water and air pollution produced by animal feedlots in Missouri, or protect immigrants from unjust incarceration in Florida.

Some states this session went further, with bills aimed at abolishing core powers long held by cities, including their ability to negotiate and set employment terms with their own contractors, enact and implement local land use laws, and control their own budgets and finances.

Here in Indiana, local jurisdictions have long been under the thumb of state lawmakers. The same legislators who bitch and moan about “unfunded mandates” imposed on state governments by Washington blithely operate on the assumption that they know better than the folks running city and county jurisdictions how those officials should do their jobs.

Are there issues that require federal mandates? Sure. Are there issues that ought to be handled consistently statewide? Of course. But the policy debate should center on what those issues are–and it rarely if ever does. Instead, we have the Indiana General Assembly deciding what vehicles Indianapolis can include in our locally-funded mass transit plans (no light rail for us–why, no one can explain).

It’s bad enough that a former Governor whose political savvy outstripped his devotion to rational policymaking (yes, Mitch, I’m looking at you) shoehorned a tax cap into the state constitution. That certainly made him popular. It has also destroyed the ability of local governments to provide appropriate levels of basic services. (Not to mention that provisions of this sort don’t belong in constitutions, which are by definition frameworks prescribing how issues like taxation are to be dealt with.)

State and local governments desperately need to revisit the allocation of power between them. In states like Indiana, state-level lawmakers need to allow local governments to make the decisions that are properly local.

As the report at the link explains,

Preemption is a tool, like the filibuster, that can and has been used by both political parties. In the past, preemption was used to ensure uniform state regulation or protect against conflicts between local governments. Preemption has also been used to advance well-being and equity. State civil rights laws, for example, allow cities to increase protections, but prohibit them from falling below what was required under law. Traditional preemption emphasized balance between the state and local levels of government. While state policy still had primacy, according to Columbia Law School professor Richard Briffault, it was understood that “state policies could coexist with local additions or variations.”This is not what we are seeing now.

“New Preemption” laws, according to Briffault, “clearly, intentionally, extensively, and at times punitively, bar local efforts to address a host of local problems.” Some of this is propelled by a disdain for local lawmaking and urban lawmakers seen as too liberal, intent on “oppressing” the free market and “trampling” on individual liberty…. Another primary driver of new preemption is the opportunity conservatives now have to deliver on a long-promised anti-regulatory agenda – an agenda that disproportionately and negatively affects women, people of color and low income communities. These new preemption laws are being used to prohibit local regulations without adopting new state standards in their place, effectively preventing any regulation or policy remedy at all.The efforts to consolidate power at the state level and end local authority over a wide range of issues are part of a national long-term strategy often driven by trade associations and corporate interests. Much of this effort has been orchestrated by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an industry-funded organization made up by lobbyists and a quarter of all state lawmakers that writes and distributes model bills.

In my most recent book (which I shamefully keep hyping) I make a case for revisiting federalism, and ensuring that control of issues is lodged with the appropriate level of government.

I doubt I’ll live long enough to see that happen…..

A Cornfield Conference

According to Indiana Public Media, 1938 saw the Republican Party in disarray, both nationally and in Indiana. FDR and the Democrats had won massive victories in the 1936 elections, and the New Deal was rapidly concentrating federal power in the Democratic Party.

It was so bad that the editors of Fortune suggested that the national GOP go out of existence. In Indiana, Democrat Paul V. McNutt had been governor since 1933, and Republicans in the state were apathetic.

In February 1938, Homer Capehart went to Arch Bobbitt, then state chair of the Republican Party, with a proposal to hold a “mid-term Republican conference” in August –a “cornfield rally.” Twenty thousand precinct committeemen, county chairmen, their families, and dignitaries from out of state attended, and it worked: the Hoosier GOP rebounded.

I was totally unaware of this history, but evidently Democrats in Northwest Indiana weren’t. They’re modeling an upcoming event on that bit of Hoosier history.

According to the press release, a Tri-State Cornfield Conference on June 29th will be hosted
by Democratic Party organizations in Noble, Dekalb, Lagrange, Kosciusko, and Whitley Counties.

The main conference will occur on Saturday, June 29th in Kendallville, Indiana at the Noble County Fairgrounds.  Special guests will include State Representative Karlee Macer and State Senator Eddie Melton.  The conference will start at noon.
An extensive digital activist training seminar will occur over 3 days at the fairgrounds, June 28-30th, by Becker Digital Strategies, which has been featured at Net Roots Nation.

Carmen Darland, the organizer of the event, and Vice Chair of the Noble County Democrats, explains that it is time for a similar revival of Indiana’s Democratic Party (and not so incidentally, time for a restoration of checks and balances), both at Indiana’s Statehouse and in Washington.

The obvious purpose of the event is to get Hoosier Democrats fired up for 2020, and an extensive speakers’ list promises to focus on the importance of the upcoming election, not just for Democrats, but for the country and the planet.

Tickets for the entire three days of the conference (including training sessions) are $10 per person, and are available on Act Blue or by calling (260) 237-1199. Additional information can be found on Facebook @2019CornfieldConference, or by contacting Carmen Darland via email: carmendarland@gmail.com.

I found this planned event very encouraging.

Thanks to gerrymandering, (and unlike the situation in 1938) Democrats in Indiana face a very uphill battle. But uphill is not the same thing as impossible. The key–as anyone with even the most modest amount of political smarts will attest–is turnout. Even most of our so-called “safe districts”–in Indiana, those gerrymandered by Republicans for Republicans–are not so safe when enough citizens who haven’t previously voted get off their couches and go to the polls.

Gerrymandering (and yes, Democrats are equally guilty of choosing their voters in states that they control) creates apathetic citizens. Residents of districts drawn to be “safe” for the party drawing the lines figure their votes don’t count, so they don’t vote. Increased turnout, however, can make those votes count, and that is one of the messages that must be repeatedly emphasized at the upcoming Cornfield Conference.

The stakes have never been higher. Here’s hoping that Mark Twain was right when he said that while history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme.

 

Assaulting Democracy

The warning signs are everywhere.

Governing Magazine has added to the evidence that America is losing even the pretense of democracy.

In the first several years after the Affordable Care Act (ACA) helped states make more low-income people eligible for Medicaid, it was only Democratic-led states that took the federal government up on its offer. Republicans have since warmed to the idea — but only on their own terms, and sometimes even if it means going against voters’ wishes…..

While some Republicans in Georgia, Oklahoma and Wyoming are exploring the possibility of Medicaid expansion in their states, Idaho and Utah are undoing ballot measures that voters passed in November to expand Medicaid.

In Utah, the Republican governor responded to the success of a ballot initiative expanding Medicaid by signing a bill that would only cover people earning up to the federal poverty line; it would also cap enrollment if costs exceed what’s expected.

But the terms of the ballot measure, which passed with 53 percent of the vote, were to expand Medicaid eligibility to people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line.

Utah has to get federal approval of this law, and similar measures were not approved during the Obama administration. The Trump Administration, of course, is hostile to pretty much everything the federal government does, so it might very well allow what is a clear repudiation of the will of the voters in Utah.

It isn’t only Utah.

Idaho is also eyeing a rollback of its citizen-led Medicaid expansion ballot measure. The initiative won handily, with 61 percent of the vote….But legislation to void the initiative is currently making its way through the Idaho statehouse.

And many of you will recall that in 2016, Maine voters approved Medicaid expansion, but the state’s certifiable nut-case then-governor, Paul LePage, prevented it from taking effect.

Whatever one’s position on Medicaid expansion, these are truly breathtaking examples of legislative and administrative chutzpah. The citizens of these states voted on an issue before them; in essence, they gave instructions to the people who are presumably in office to represent them. And those people simply ignored them.

This is not unlike Trump’s decision to declare an “emergency” that would allow him to defy a Congressional vote. Even if a member of Congress believes the wall should be built, he or she should be appalled by a Presidential action that strikes at the very heart of the Constitution’s separation of powers. It ignores as irrelevant the constitutional provision that vests decisions about spending in Congress, a provision that–before now–has constrained lawmakers and administrators alike.

Congress said no. That should have been the end of it. The President’s “emergency” is not only bogus, it ignores the clear division of authority mandated by the nation’s charter.

Yet every single Indiana Republican Representative voted against the House Resolution to reverse that dangerous attack on a fundamental element of American governance, placing the interests of their political party above both the good of the country and fidelity to their oaths of office.

Without the rule of law–without lawmakers and public officials who are willing to accept the decisions of voters whether they like those decisions or not; without lawmakers who are willing to insist upon compliance with the Constitution even when it is their party that is breaking the rules–we don’t have a democracy or a republic or even a legitimate government.

We have a banana republic.

“Illegally Constituted” Legislatures..

Every once in a while, I read a news release that makes me go “wow!” I read this one twice–and I love it.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins struck downtwo of the state constitutional amendments passed by North Carolina voters last November. But the reason he gave for his decision was remarkable: in his view, the state legislature is so gerrymandered as to be an illegitimate body that doesn’t really represent voters, and thus had no authority to alter the state constitution.

“An illegally constituted General Assembly does not represent the people of North Carolina and is therefore not empowered to pass legislation that would amend the state’s constitution,” wrote Collins.

The amendments that were struck down by this ruling were an amendment requirement that voters present a strict photo ID at the polls, which is almost identical to a previous law a federal court said targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision,” and an amendment capping the state income tax rate at 7 percent, which was a huge gift to the wealthy that jeopardized the state budget.

North Carolina voters had approved four constitutional amendments in a referendum, and the Judge let two of them go into effect. He found that the legislature’s description of the two amendments he struck down had been misleading. (A court had previously invalidated  an earlier draft of language explaining the amendments.)

North Carolina has been called the most aggressively gerrymandered state in the country, and a case challenging its current legislative and congressional districts will be heard by the Supreme Court during its next term.

The Judge’s decision will, of course, be appealed, and there is no telling what the final outcome will be, but the decision ranks right up there with the pronouncement by a clear-eyed child in the well-known story: “the Emperor has no clothes.”

A few days ago, I cited David Leonhardt’s column in the New York Times, in which he catalogued state legislative actions contrary to the clear desires of the relevant voters, and I compared those examples to the repeated refusal of Indiana’s lawmakers to act on the demonstrable wishes of Hoosier voters that they pass a hate crimes bill.

Thanks to the prevalence of gerrymandering (and assorted other political “dirty tricks” including vote suppression), America currently has several state legislatures that meet Judge Collins’ criteria for illegitimacy.

When the “clothing” of rhetoric is stripped away, the fact that we no longer have a genuine democracy is the “naked” truth.

Three cheers for Judge Collins and his willingness to call it like it is.