School Choice Moves Forward in Indiana

Published August 1, 2000

NEW HARMONY, IN–The movement to achieve increased choice in education for Indiana parents took a significant step forward in late May, when more than 150 parents, state and community leaders, and school choice activists gathered at a symposium in New Harmony, Indiana, to learn more about the school choice debate. They heard from national proponents of school choice and leading researchers in the field from Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Wisconsin.

The symposium, “Freedom to Choose: An Introduction to Educational Options for Children,” was an offspring of a similar national gathering convened earlier this year in Milwaukee, often called “the birthplace of educational options.”

But unlike its predecessor, the New Harmony symposium focused on initiatives for a state that is devoid of choice opportunities. Apart from privately funded scholarships for low-income families, there currently is no school choice initiative operating in Indiana that provides financial support to parents who opt out of the public school setting.

The goal of the symposium was to inspire those engaged in the battle to secure more educational options for parents. Throughout the program, the speakers emphasized empowerment.

Dr. Howard Fuller, one of the nation’s most vocal proponents of school choice, warned that the school choice battle is over power, and that power will not be conceded easily.

“Choice is not new in America: If you have money, then you have it,” said Fuller, who organized the earlier symposium in Milwaukee through his Marquette University-based Institute for the Transformation of Learning. (See “Black Leaders on a Mission for Parent Power,” School Reform News, May 2000.)

Addressing the opposition to school choice, Fuller posed the question: “Should we be against a system that would let you choose which school is best for your child?” School choice gives parents that power, he said, and the more choices the better: charter schools, education tax credits, partnership schools, and contract schools as well as vouchers.

Indiana parents must take control of their educational system by voicing disapproval of those who oppose the school choice movement, said Dolores Fridge, associate vice chancellor of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. Fridge, who was instrumental in helping win the battle for tax credits in Minnesota, called for parents to join together in support of choice initiatives and to rid themselves of a mentality based upon ignorance of the issue.

“How dare we allow our leaders to be apathetic to this issue? How dare we allow them to make decisions without our consent?” she challenged. There is a crisis in the country, she said, and for the sake of our country’s children we cannot give up the fight. She characterized the struggle as “the biggest civil rights issue of 2000.”

The vital role played by parents was emphasized also by Zakiya Courtney, who led the parent drive for school choice in Milwaukee through a predominantly minority coalition group, Parents for School Choice. It was the parents who took control in Milwaukee, she said, and who were the key to everything that happened.

“This is about a new kind of power,” she explained.

To better prepare symposium participants for the battle ahead, panelists also presented research findings that addressed the achievement levels of minority students in urban public school settings, and the benefits those students derive from choice programs that enable them to escape failing and dangerous public schools. As the results of such research become more widely disseminated, experts report a significant increase in demand for choice opportunities, particularly in the black community.

Indiana University’s Dr. Kim Metcalf, who has studied the Cleveland choice program since 1995, reported that while test score gains are small, they are statistically significant. He also noted that parental involvement and satisfaction serve as equally significant gauges of the success of choice programs.

On a different front, the school choice movement has gained the support of a growing number of religious leaders, many of whom have started schools because of constituent and church concerns about what was happening to children in their communities. For example, Pastor Ken Sullivan, president of the Indiana-based Urban Christian Schools Coalition, argues that school choice coincides with the evolution of the church’s mission to save lives.

“I think that the church is called to do more than what they have been doing,” said Sullivan, whose North Star Christian Academy serves a 99 percent African-American student population. The developing school choice movement would certainly “touch this community,” he added.

Estel Carroll, president of Indiana’s Parents for Educational Choice, believes that–contrary to popular opinion–the movement for school choice in Indiana is being led by the African-American community. She reported her group’s numbers had more than doubled as a result of the symposium. The group plans to make its presence and objectives even more clearly known through a “massive campaign” at the upcoming Indiana Black Expo Summer Celebration.

“We know that we are not alone now,” Carroll said, noting this realization had provided the motivation, incentive, and excitement to work for choice. Ideally, she added, “we can all come together for a common goal, which is the best education for our children.”

That’s the kind of feedback GEO Foundation President Kevin Teasley likes to hear. Teasley’s organization, the Indianapolis-based Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation, cosponsored the symposium together with the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, also of Indianapolis. Carroll’s comments indicate the event not only served as an informative introduction to the controversial issue of school choice, but also provided the opportunity for statewide choice advocates to become unified in their efforts.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for concerned citizens in Indiana to see what’s going on around the country and in their state,” said Teasley.

“What we see from this meeting is a revolution from the roots,” added Robert Enlow, vice president of programs and public relations for the Friedman Foundation. “This is the first time parents are taking charge of their children’s education in this manner. We feel privileged to help them achieve that goal.”

Barato L. Britt is a freelance writer associated with the GEO Foundation. He covers education issues, focusing primarily on parental choice in Indiana, New Mexico, and Ohio.