Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

May 1, 2013

Bill offers real choice

— Gov. Mike Pence held a press conference Monday, ostensively to praise state lawmakers for the recently concluded legislative session.

He did that — and then mentioned he might veto some of the new legislation they just had sent his way for signature.

“There are a number of bills we have concerns about,” the first-term governor said.

He declined to identify which pieces of legislation he finds so troubling, but we hope they don’t include House Bill 1381. It’s state Rep. Mike Karickhoff’s proposal that prohibits school districts from accepting only the brightest transfer students while turning away those with special needs, low test scores and minor disciplinary problems.

The Kokomo Republican’s bill was three years in the making.

In 2010, as part of property tax reform, the Legislature did away with out-of-district tuition in public schools. Under “school choice,” families were afforded the opportunity to move their children to a district that better met their educational needs.

But lawmakers didn’t require Indiana’s public schools to limit which factors they could consider when admitting out-of-district students. Criteria for admission to another school district presently is a local decision.

In the Kokomo area, most school districts collect discipline and attendance records and ISTEP test scores before accepting a transfer student. Under Karickhoff’s bill, which passed 43-7 in the state Senate and 85-11 in the House, each school district must announce its number of vacancies at every grade level. Openings will be filled on a first come, first served basis. If there are more transfer requests than vacancies, lotteries will be used to fill them.

In Indiana presently, “school choice” means schools choose their students. And it’s difficult to defend the current set of state and local policies as “pro-choice” when so many families aren’t given one.

Demographics are the principal determining factor in school performance. Schools where a majority of parents are college-educated and solidly middle class usually excel. It’s no surprise then that schools in districts with low poverty rates want to maintain their demographic status.

But wasn’t the idea behind school choice to allow economically disadvantaged students to flee underperforming schools?

Karickhoff’s bill ensures students access to any and all of Indiana’s public schools. It protects families against any possibility of discrimination. It should be signed into law by the governor.

Hoosier families have waited too long for real school choice.