January 28, 2011

Governor Daniels calls school choice a ‘human right’

(Editor’s note: Due to space constraints, the following Indiana Catholic Conference column was not published in the Jan. 21 issue of The Criterion.)

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

During his seventh State of the State address on Jan. 14, Gov. Mitch Daniels told 150 lawmakers, a packed House chamber gallery, and countless others watching online, on television or listening to him on the radio that school choice was a “civil right, the human right,” and a matter of “justice” for parents and children in Indiana.

With Republican majorities in the Indiana House and Senate, there is little stopping state lawmakers from creating educational opportunities for children to attend a private school of their parent’s choice. In many cases, it will be a Catholic school.

Daniels credited lawmakers for expanding public school choice options in years past by allowing families to attend the school of their choice tuition free within existing school districts and through charter schools, but said, “one more step is necessary.

“For families who cannot find the right traditional public school or the right charter school for their child, and are not wealthy enough to move near one, justice requires that we help,” Daniels said. “We should let these families apply dollars that the state spends on their child to the non-government school of their choice.”

Glenn Tebbe, the Indiana Catholic Conference executive director, said that the Catholic Church has been working toward and readying for this change for decades.

“We agree with Gov. Daniels,” Tebbe said. “School choice is a matter of justice for all.

“Parents, as the primary teachers and caregivers of their children, have the fundamental right and responsibility to educate their children,” Tebbe said. “The state must make possible the right of parents to choose appropriate educational opportunities best suited to their children’s needs. The governor’s initiative does this.

“Parents without financial means are often faced with fewer options. We are concerned about children who do not have a fair shot at a good education either because of a failing school district or just because the school setting is not the right fit for that child,” Tebbe said. “Catholic schools will not replace public schools, but offer an alternative for those who need one.”

“School choice is definitely a civil right, and it is the right thing to do,” said Rep. Bob Behning,

R-Indianapolis, who chairs the House Education Committee and will promote the education reform bill in the House. “Over time, school choice has become a civil right. Unfortunately, minority children usually are in school corporations that are not performing well, and they have no options.”

Behning explained that the proposed school choice plan would apply only to families that currently have children enrolled in public schools. They would be eligible for a scholarship for their children based on the school district in which they live and their annual income.

For example, a low-income family living in the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) district could receive as much as 90 percent of the cost of educating a child there for a year, known as the average daily membership, which for IPS is approximately $8,000.

The scholarship would then be as much as $7,200. However, if the parents of that child chose to enroll him or her in a Catholic school with a tuition fee of $4,200 per year, the scholarship would not exceed that fee.

“At this point, I’m optimistic it will make it through the House,” Behning said.

Behning, who has been a school choice advocate for years, added, “The reality is most families in Indiana will continue to choose a public school. The goal of the education reform package is to provide an atmosphere in schools that will create an outstanding public school system.

“The private school choice is just a piece of the reform package. It needs to work all together. The package, in tandem, will move Indiana forward in school performance,” Behning said.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said the legislature will work to expand public school choice by expanding charter schools and granting private school choice through opportunity scholarships for students to use at non-government schools.

“The scholarships target students most in need of school choice opportunities, and it is a matter of justice,” said Kruse, who is the chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “The more choices we offer parents, the better off society is. There will also be a new level of competition.”

When asked if he thought the private school choice piece would pass this year, Kruse responded, “We definitely have our work cut out for us, but I’m optimistic that it will pass. I think it’s achievable.

“These reforms are going to offer Catholic schools a very increased role and growth in education,” Kruse added. “They will be able to help more students than ever before.”

During his concluding remarks at his State of the State address, Daniels told lawmakers, “Our children are waiting. Fellow citizens are waiting. History is waiting. You’re going to do great things. It’s going to be a session to remember. I can’t wait.”

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

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