Let me begin with a nod to a network television show worth a watch. Abbot Elementary. In this seasons first episode, a young teacher sits in his classroom staring forlornly at his notepad. His seasoned mentor pops her head in to the room. “Everything alright?” She asks though she knows it’s not.
“Everything is chaos, and we all lose,” he replies. He says he’s upset that he lost precious time for planning due to a fiasco, but he’s really upset that a colleague can’t pay her bills on her salary and the school can’t afford even a single wheelchair accessible desk for a kindergarten student.
“Gregory,” his mentor says, “Being a teacher is being asked to do the impossible year after year and our only solution is to show up every day and try our best.”
The show won awards this year for a good reason: it demonstrates the teetering balance that teachers maintain between hope and realism. Some years, it’s a fight keep a teacher’s head in the game. Some schools are underdogs and teachers are creative MVPs trying to provide solid education in underfunded classrooms.
It’s why educators sound alarm as state legislatures allocate public education funds away from public schools in the name of school choice. Indiana’s new education scholarship accounts, called ESAs is latest allocation of funds that should be budgeted for classrooms.
ESAs are grant-based scholarship accounts meant to fund “pre-approved education expenses, including tuition, therapies, assessments and fee-for-service transportation at pre-approved education service providers” for eligible students. ESAS beecame available in 2022 in spite of the concerns of former State Superindent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz as well as the president of the Indiana PTA Rachel Burke and Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer, President of Indiana Coalition for Public Education. Wisely, these leaders argued ESA funding can harm families and students as well. In a July letter to editors around the state, all three highlighted the downsides that parents will face if they elect to receive the grant money for their special education students.
Parents should be forewarned, they wrote. The ESA program falls under the Indiana State Treasurer’s office, not the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) and that changes rights for students. Quoted here are the six following downsides to applying for and using ESA funds:
1. Depending on the severity of your child’s special education needs, the ESA may not cover every service your child needs.
2. When you take an ESA, you are giving up your child’s right to a Free and Appropriate Education under Federal Law and your child loses his or her due process rights.
3. If you choose the ESA option, the State provides no protections. The IDOE will not be involved, and the State Treasurer’s Office has said it will not get involved in disputes. This is purely funding for private services. If the provider doesn’t follow an Individual Education Plan, or mistreats children, or overbills, parents are on their own to resolve the situation. If parents need an attorney to resolve issues, they will be on their own to pay the attorney’s fees.
4. Providers who can be paid by this program are not obligated to follow the child’s IEP.
5. Providers who can be paid by this program can refuse to serve your child at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all.
6. Parents will be responsible for paying for the required state assessment for children whose families take an ESA for special education services. As yet, it is unclear how parents can access the test.
The implications are profound. Applying for an ESA could cost the parent money in the long run because their funds won’t cover all the services a student needs. These cannot be used in public schools, local or charter. This means parents sacrifice rights they have in public schools and they must bear the full responsibility for finding and handling the testing and services. Finally, there are no guarantees of the quality of the services.
What are the upsides? It shifts part of the cost from the state onto families. In 2015, the Republican House Ways and Means Staff put together “Indiana Education Funding, Explained” report to justify vouchers. The report noted the amount of money that the state saved with vouchers by giving vouchers. Choice vouchers were supposed to support low income families who wanted to send their children to private schools. The report notes that the average Choice award for the 2018-2019 school year “was $4,422 per student.” Tuition averaged over $7000 dollars. Parents paid the shortfall. For school choice people or those who favor privatization of education, the message is “we saved taxpayers money in exchange for choice.”
While it’s probable that these families were relieved by the tuition break, the school choice program’s hidden cost is that private schools fail to guarantee equity. While it’s a parents’ right to chose another form of education for their children, when they do so, the educations they elect do not guarantee students will receive services appropriate to their needs, nor that they will be allowed to attend the school that parents choose. Private schools do not have to accept any student nor meet specific education needs.
Navigating any system, including the educational system, can feel chaotic and choice gives a sense of control. But well-funded, free and equal public education is still proven to be the best for any nation, as Steven Kees wrote in his June 2022 contribution to the NORRAG blog. (NORRAG is the Network for international policies in cooperation in education and training). In response to the equivocating of UNESCO’s report on education, Kees said Years of neoliberal policies have often left public schools over-crowded, with poorly trained and paid teachers, few learning materials, dilapidated facilities, and often not close by. It is no wonder that some parents opt out. However, while it may be rational for disadvantaged individuals to sometimes send their children to private schools, it is poor public policy to encourage it -— it increases inequality, it ignores the public interest, it neglects public schools, and it devalues teachers. Funding and improving our “free and equal” public education is more evidence-based force of social and cultural good than giving up and bifurcatin
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