School choice advocates got some very good news this week. Gov. Mike Pence announced his support for an expansion of Indiana’s voucher system that goes beyond what he advocated in his gubernatorial campaign. Our system is already the biggest in the nation, with more than 9,000 students attending private schools with public dollars during the 2012-2013 school year. There’s no cap for next year, and the proposed changes would greatly increase the number of eligible students.
The requirement for one-year-attendance of a public school would be dropped, so students already enrolled in a private school would qualify. Recipients would be allowed to keep their vouchers if their family income goes up as much as $127,000 a year ($64,000 is the ceiling now). The current voucher amount of $4,500 would go up to $5,500 next year and $6,500 for the 2014-15 school year.
The best argument for the changes is that the voucher system would be big enough to encourage more private schools in Indiana.
“There were at least three private school groups that offer high-quality options for families in other states that wanted to come in, but they couldn’t come in for $4,500,” Friedman Foundation President Robert Enlow said last year. More private schools mean more parents will have more options in their quest to get the best education possible for their children.
The one pitfall to watch for is whether the expansion is too much too soon. If vouchers are available to virtually anyone who wants them, will that dilute the primary mission of giving economically stressed parents the same choices for their children that the well-off have always enjoyed?
And before the critics of choice bring it up, yes, vouchers likely hurt public schools or at least give them more stress than they would ordinarily have. And if the current system hurts, the expanded one would hurt more. Public schools that want to stay competitive will have to step up their games considerably.
But just thinking about the hurt alone is wrong perspective, says education reformer and lifelong Democrat Michelle Rhee in explaining why she broke with the party to go from voucher foe to voucher advocate: “Here’s the question we Democrats need to ask ourselves: Are we beholden to the public school system at any cost, or are we beholden to the public school child at any cost?” If it’s the latter, the support for vouchers should be an easy call.
Any public education reform will be complicated and take years to accomplish. But the kids most in need are losing their chance for a good education now.