Bohanon: A Charter School for Ahmed? Why Not?

August 19, 2013

“All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education.” — from John Stuart Mill On Liberty (1859)

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

K-12 education is the largest component of Indiana’s state budget. Most Hoosier students go to public schools and probably always will. Public schools receive support from the state government for general operations, and from local property taxes for construction and transportation. In the last decade, some K-12 students have enrolled in charter schools, which are public schools freed from many state mandates and regulations.

Charters receive fewer tax dollars on average per student than traditional public schools. That is primarily because they do not have access to local property taxes for school construction and transportation. In the last few years, some students from lower-income households attend private schools using state-funded vouchers. These “voucher-eligible” schools agree to comply with certain state requirements. The amount of state support embedded in the vouchers is by design less than the marginal (incremental) and average government support per student for the traditional or charter public schools.

Vouchers, charter schools and mobility between public schools make the K-12 landscape in Indiana quite diverse; students and parents have a lot of choices. I celebrate this diversity. As long as a school, public, charter or voucher meets minimal and reasonable state-set standards, it is healthy for our public-education system to offer a wide array of options. What’s more, it is better that these diverse options come from communities from the ground up than be imposed by central planners.

This model presumes that parents are competent. It also asserts that the goal of public education is to impart students with certain skills (think basic reading, writing and numeracy) but leaves many components of education to the discretion of parents, communities and students. If a family wants soccer for Johnny, or marching band for Susie or religious instruction for Ahmed, this should be facilitated without fear or favor.

So if the good folks of the Islamic faith in my community want to start an Islamic school that takes vouchers, I support this 100 percent. And if such an Islamic school or voucher support for it makes you uncomfortable, I humbly suggest you examine your assumptions. What are you afraid of? Vouchers are as American as apple pie and as constitutional as the Bill of Rights — as long as they are open to all.

Of course, when public funds are at stake, it is proper and necessary that those taking the funds be held to certain expectations — such as student-performance measures. That is the case in Indiana. I know this newly evolving landscape makes many of my progressive friends uncomfortable. Aren’t vouchers and charters stealing from the public-school system? No, dear friends, vouchers and charters are part of the public-school system.

Consider this analogy: Families whose incomes fall below certain levels are eligible for food stamps. For better or worse, food-stamp rules don’t allow recipients to use them to purchase alcoholic beverages or toilet paper, and some policymakers think soda pop should also be proscribed. But no one says purchasing Kosher or Halal food with food stamps entails establishing religion.

Indeed, we would all agree that forbidding food-stamp recipients from buying food consistent with their faith commitments would be an egregious violation of constitutionally protected rights. Why should it be different in K-12 education?

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University.



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