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February 18, 2013

HEINIG: Is Indiana’s new governor a new Old Deluder?

Giving families ‘school choice’ only ignores the problem

— Is Gov. Pence’s attempt to expand “school choice” a potential disaster? As a long-time teacher and principal in public and nonpublic schools, I see both sides of the question, but I am apprehensive. Nonpublic schools help many elementary students, but that does not make them better than public schools. Nonpublic secondary schools prepare their students very well — if those students want to go to a traditional four-year college. They can seldom adequately prepare them for vocational and technical careers. Could our self-professed moderate leader be leading us in the wrong direction? You bet!

We may be moving too fast to evaluate school choice. We need a longitudinal study comparing the academic achievement of public and nonpublic school students. Doing that properly takes 10 to 12 years — too long to help today’s kids to take advantage of tomorrow’s opportunities. Even then, our ability to compare public and nonpublic schools would be limited.

Most nonpublic schools are religious schools. I was a Catholic school kid from first grade through high school. I later spent 15 years as a Catholic school teacher and principal. I was blessed to know and respect talented nonpublic school educators from many Christian faiths. We had different religious beliefs, but we all wanted our students to live and learn in a thoroughly Christian environment. One of my colleagues, who was principal of a Lutheran school, said, “I don’t even like to talk about secular subjects. We try to teach every subject from a Christian perspective.”

Our faith defines us. It is the fundamental difference between Christian schools and public schools. Parents of prospective students must accept that difference. Once, I responded to an article that claimed public schools did a better job than Christian schools. I replied that Christian schools don’t claim to do a better job. They do a different job. Originally, our public schools were also religious. Their nonsectarian character emerged later.

In 1647, the Puritans enacted the Old Deluder Law. They believed that reading the Bible helped Christians identify the deceptions of Satan, “the Old Deluder.” The law required communities to have teachers and schools. It provided a precedent for other colonies and territories. In 1852, our Indiana General Assembly called for a tax-supported public school system, although years passed before it was fully implemented.

How quickly and extensively should we change an institution that has taken our Hoosier predecessors a century and a half to create? Many problems have yet to be addressed. A few of them follow.

Filling vacant seats by lottery does offer equal access, but it doesn’t add even one more seat to any classroom. How does a school determine the number of vacant seats? I taught in one school district that used portable classrooms to handle growing enrollment. May out-of-district transfer students occupy empty seats in those rooms?

Portables usually provide temporary space while building permanent space. What happens to the transfer students when the construction is complete and the portables are no longer needed? Are they sent back to their home school districts or must the new construction have enough space for them, too? Voucher dollars pay for instruction but not construction. That comes from the school corporation’s building fund. How many Hoosier taxpayers want to pay higher taxes to build space for nonresident students?

Allowing students to attend nonpublic and out-of-district schools ignores the real problem. Moving kids around sometimes helps, but it does nothing to improve ineffective public schools. Hoosiers have demanded better schools for decades, but the politicians and bureaucrats in Indianapolis are content with the same old response: more standardized tests!

So what! We were doing that in 1968, when I began teaching. Since then, we have collected mountains of data that we haven’t used. The only new elements are performance-based incentives and penalties for public schools and teachers. We’re giving more money to schools and teachers that are already doing well and taking it away from those that are struggling and need it the most. Is that an example of good old-fashioned Hoosier common sense?

Moving money is no more effective than moving students. We won’t see significant improvements until we use our test data to develop newer, more creative ways to teach. However, the data do confirm what we already knew: Lower pupil-teacher ratios improve student performance. Will packing more kids into high performing schools increase their pupil-teacher ratios and decrease performance? Absolutely!

Despite evidence to the contrary, I still hope that Gov. Pence takes a more moderate approach to education than his predecessor did. We expelled Satan, the Old Deluder, from Indiana public schools generations ago. Our new governor needn’t become a New Deluder to take his place!

Mark Heinig Jr. of Kokomo is a retired Indiana teacher and principal. Contact him at markjr1708@gmail.com.     

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