Opposing School Vouchers in Indiana

March 25, 2013

Picture by Susan Lantzer. Ava Lantzer at Rally Against School Vouchers.


On Tuesday, March 19, members of CFI-Indiana joined Indiana Coalition for Public Education and other organizations for a rally against school vouchers at the Indiana State House.  The following day, I sat through nearly 4 hours of testimony supporting the bill to expand the already problematic voucher program in Indiana before the opposition got its turn to testify.  Each speaker (from both sides) was only allowed 5 minutes to state his/her case.  When I got my turn, I first felt the need to correct a person who had missused a word earlier making his statement the opposite of what he meant and then got to give less than half of my prepared speech.  However, my former student on the Senate Education committee was a model student and took  my printed speech, left the room, copied and stapled copies for each member of the committee and passed them out.  Here is my prepared speech: (I borrowed extensively from CFI's position paper on school vouchers. )  

Speech Against Voucher Bill

Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee and especially to one of my former students who is on this committee, Pete Miller. Pete is the product of one of the best public high schools in the state of Indiana. Of course, I might be a little biased, but I consider Perry Meridian High School, where Pete graduated as president of his class and I worked for 31 years, as a very high quality school. I am always glad to see that former students are taking an active part in our government and succeeding in other professions, even if we disagree. Senator Randy Head is also one of my former students. Both Pete and Randy were in the Gifted and Talented program at Perry Meridian. As a guidance counselor there during my last 13 years, I had several experiences of parents telling me that even though they were Catholic, they were sending their child to Perry Meridian instead of the local Catholic high school because they felt that Perry Meridian offered more opportunities and higher quality than the local Catholic high school.

I am Reba Boyd Wooden. I am a retired teacher with 37 years credit on teacher retirement. I am presently Executive Director of Center for Inquiry-Indiana which is the Indiana branch of an international educational not-for-profit by the same name. CFI's purpose is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Secular means religion neutral where everyone's freedom of religion is respected but no religion has favored status over other religions nor over non religion. I speak in opposition to HB 1003.

My father was active in the Republican party and at one time held a local office. I think he always wanted to run for the state legislature but never did. There were at least two Indiana Democrats that he held in high regard, State Senator and later Governor of Indiana, Matthew Welch and Senator Birch Bayh. My first visit to this chamber was as a page for then State Senator Welch.

In the mid 70s, my father and mother visited several countries in South America as a part of the People to People program. One of the things that my father talked about and was concerned about literally to his dying day was the state of education there. He recounted many times about their tour guide telling them that she could not get her children into a school because the schools were all private schools and there was not enough room for all the children who applied. Her children were on a waiting list. He was still telling that story on March 31, 1986, the day before his scheduled heart surgery the following day. He died on the operating table during that surgery on April 1, 1986.

While on a trip to Ireland in 2001, I recall our tour guide telling about how because the schools there were mostly all religious schools, sometimes a student had to travel several miles to attend the protestant or Catholic school of their religion and sometimes through hostile neighborhoods. We are all aware of the religious strife that has plagued Ireland for many years.

The United States public education system is the backbone of our democracy, providing a free education for all children regardless of their family's religious preference. If public funds are diverted to private schools through vouchers, religious and other private interests will greatly expand their presence in the education business. Children will be moved out of religiously and ideologically neutral democratic public schools responsible to elected school boards and subject to laws designed to protect the equal rights of students and staff. Vouchers, if not stopped and rolled back, will ultimately undermine public education, weaken religious freedom, shred our American constitutional principle of separation of church and state, and negatively impact community harmony.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in a dissenting opinion warned of "the risk that publicly financed voucher programs pose in terms of religious social conflict." He accused the majority of the court of "turning the clock back" on "fundamental constitutional principles" and adopting "an interpretation of the Establishment Clause that the Court rejected more than half a century ago." He added, "I fear that this present departure from the Court's earlier understanding risks creating a form of religiously based conflict potentially harmful to the nation's social fabric."

Quoting Supreme Court Justice William Brennan : "The public schools are supported entirely, in most communities, by public funds-funds
exacted not only from parents, nor from those who hold particular religious views, nor indeed from those who subscribe to any creed at all. It is implicit in the history and character of American public education that the public schools serve a uniquely public function: the training of American citizens in an atmosphere free of parochial, divisive, or separatist influence of any sort-an atmosphere in which children may assimilate a heritage common to all American groups and religions. This is a heritage neither theistic nor atheistic, but simply civic and patriotic."

Vouchers not only represent an attempt to circumvent federal and state constitutional safeguards against government support of religion, but they pose a serious threat to public education in this country. Compounding this threat is the misleading way in which vouchers have been marketed, resulting in the public not being aware of the dangers posed by vouchers.

Public school budgets are being slashed while public funds are diverted to nonpublic schools not responsible to taxpayers and not subject to the reasonable regulations applicable to public schools. Class sizes are being increased while programs for special needs children are being reduced. Class sizes of 30 to 40 children are becoming more common even though large-scale demonstrations, such as Tennessee's STAR program, have shown that K-3 classes of just 15 students produce beneficial effects that last through high school graduation.

A quarter of America's children live near or below the poverty line, yet insufficient attention is paid to the effects on school performance of poverty and its concomitants. Here is just one example among many. The National Center for Education Statistics has shown that while the gap between racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups is very slowly narrowing, it is still too wide. The danger of vouchers has to date escaped the attention of much of the public. This needs to change. Contrary to the claim by supporters of vouchers that vouchers will make available better schools for children from low income families. The opposite is true. Vouchers will destroy the equal opportunity afforded children independent of their socioeconomic status.

Fortunately, more than 50 national education, religious, humanist, civil rights, civil liberties and other organizations-among them the Center for Inquiry-have been working together for years in the National Coalition for Public Education to oppose efforts to channel public funds to nonpublic schools. Failing to do so risks allowing taxpayer dollars to support sectarian education and damage public education-a prospect that should trouble all Americans, religious or not.

We need to put every dollar we can into improving our public school system so that every child has not only a local public school to attend but one that is of the highest quality. We need to put more money into our all day kindergarten program to make sure that every school system offers this and expanding that into a comprehensive early childhood education program in the public schools.
This is the best way to improve the level of education, especially for children of low income families, not by stripping dollars away from public education.

I strongly urge you to vote against HB 1003. Do not destroy our Indiana public education system by expanding this already problematic voucher program. Further, it is my hope that the courts will stand up for public education and strike down the already existing voucher program in Indiana which is already one of the most expansive in the country.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify before your committee.