In Rural America, School Choice Poses Agonizing Choices

The Right Wing

With the largest private school voucher program in the country, and a charter sector that has grown “explosively,” Indiana is a poster state for the kinds of education policies pushed by President Trump and his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. But for small rural communities, the growth of school choice over the past six years is now forcing another choice: whether to close the public schools that are at their heart as competing schools pull students and money away. As vouchers and charters were sold to voters, the cost to small towns like Stinesville, IN, where officials voted this week to shutter the elementary school, was left out of the sales pitch.

Stinesville is half an hour from Bloomington, Indiana, in the northwestern corner of Monroe County. The turn north toward Stinesville from State Road 46 is about half way between Ellettsville and McCormick's Creek State Park. You drive on North Stinesville Road through fields, past old farmhouses and a quarry, and then the road bends and you are on Main Street. There are several old downtown structures, some with boarded-up windows, and a couple soda machines next to the sidewalk. There is a banner stretched over the street advertising a fall festival, the Stinesville Stone Quarry Festival.

If you are driving north, the school is on your right, but first you see the signs. Some have been printed; some are handmade. "Save Stinesville School," and "WE NEED OUR SCHOOL...a message from our kids," they say. On this night, October 18, 2017, despite the sleepy look of the downtown street, there is nothing sleepy about school's parking lot. It is packed. Inside, the gym is full of people, filling the folding chairs that have been set on the floor, and squeezing into the bleachers. Many are wearing red. There are parents with young children, teenagers, and plenty of older people too. There are police officers in uniform. There is a man in khakis and a black shirt, who appears to have several guns, one in a holster attached to his leg. No one seems surprised or concerned about this. He is the town marshal.

In front of the crowd, the school board members sit at long tables, their names on placards in front of them, and superintendent Mike Wilcox begins his explanation of why the Richland-Bean Blossom school corporation is considering closing Stinesville Elementary School and busing all children in the rural area to the central campus in Ellettsville, population 6,600, six miles away. The central campus has a large primary school, intermediate school, junior high, and high school. Superintendent Wilcox shows a PowerPoint about the work of the long-range planning committee and its considerations: quality, brand, needs and wants, absolutes, HVAC and ADA compliance. Many needs have been identified in the high school athletics area. Declining enrollment and increased operating costs for Stinesville Elementary make its long-term viability uncertain, he says.

The formal language, the need for fiscally defensible decisions, the imbalance between the cost-per-child at Stinesville versus the cheaper cost-per-child in town, are not going to persuade this crowd, and the superintendent does not seem to expect them to.

In closing, he leaves the PowerPoint. "I get the heartfelt, sentimental side of this. I grew up in a quarry town like Stinesville. It was the heart of the community. People have asked me, Do you understand what closing a school does to a small town? Yes, I understand. Nine out of ten small towns whose schools close dry up. That makes this agonizing as I put together a recommendation for the board to consider. I get that side of it very, very clearly." He pauses. "I did not come here as a superintendent intending to stand in front of you tonight."

Selling choice
What is happening in Stinesville is related to school privatization. As former Governor Mitch Daniels knew, the name that sells this concept in Indiana, and nationwide, is school choice. The charter program in Indiana began in 2001 but was expanded in 2011. The voucher program was passed and launched in 2011. Under Governor Mike Pence, the pathways to vouchers expanded, the income limits went up, the users of vouchers became whiter and more affluent, and the program swelled from under 10,000 students to tens of thousands. 

Initially, the argument for school privatization in Indiana used the rhetoric of equity and quality, with quality defined by performance on standardized tests. Since the Indiana programs have been in operation for several years, it is clear that the test score performance of charter and voucher schools is no better and often worse than that of the public schools serving similar demographics. Charters in Indianapolis are more segregated than the public schools close by. Now that there is clear data to contradict the claim that charters and private schools are either more equitable or of higher quality than public schools, in the test-based terms they themselves set, advocates have moved the goal posts, to choice for the sake of choice. Shouldn't families be able to use public dollars, they say, to have a choice in where they send their kids to school?

As the voucher and charter programs were explained and advertised as "school choice" to the public, one corollary fact was not included: Indiana residents might lose a choice that many of us have taken for granted for decades—the ability to send our kids to a local, well-resourced public school. The kind of school that serves lunch and participates in the federal school lunch program. The kind of school that provides transportation. The kind of school that has certified teachers and a library and is in a district obligated by law to accept all children in the attendance area, including those with profound special needs, and to provide them a free and appropriate public education.

Pressures in Indiana to consolidate rural schools and school districts are not new, but they have intensified in the past eight years. Governor Daniels cut $300 million from the state budget for K-12 in 2009, during the recession. That money was never replaced even as the economy began to recover. Indiana voters wrote tax caps into the state constitution through a referendum in 2010, weakening the ability of local governments to provide services.

Since 2011, public dollars being diverted from the public school system to charters and vouchers have ballooned. By the end of 2015, according to an analysis done by the Legislative Services Agency at the request of Democratic state representative Ed Delaney, $920 million had been spent on charters and vouchers. From its inception in 2011 through the 2016-2017 school year, the voucher program cost Indiana taxpayers $516.5 million. The 81 charters in operation in 2016-2017 cost Indiana about $267.5 million in tuition support for that school year alone.

Both charter schools and the voucher program siphon families and money out of the public school system. They siphon money away from schools that are accountable to their communities through elected school boards. Of course, having an elected board is not a guarantee of community representation. In Indianapolis, out-of-state money funneled through the astroturf group Stand for Children has resulted in a pro-privatization school board for Indianapolis Public Schools.

For rural schools, a costly choice
The children pictured in the expensive marketing campaigns for "school choice" were children of color in inner-city schools. School choice has drawn resources out of those already beleaguered schools. School choice is having a broader impact, too. Stinesville Elementary School's enrollment had been declining for years, but it plunged after Indiana's school voucher program went into effect, drawing many students into religious schools. That timing may have been coincidence. Only 15 children in the Richland-Bean Blossom attendance district used vouchers in 2013-2014. By 2016-2017, that number had increased to 41. R-BB receives about $5,700 per child, so 41 children fewer meant about $200,000 less in R-BB.

Also in 2016, a new charter school opened up in downtown Ellettsville. Its organizers had sought authorization from the Indiana Charter School Board, twice, before turning to Grace College and Theological Seminary, a private college in northern Indiana, several hours away from Monroe County. After Grace College approved the charter, the Indiana State Board of Education loaned Seven Oaks Classical School $2 million to renovate an old school building that had once belonged to the Richland Bean-Blossom school corporation. In its first year of operation, Seven Oaks Classical School drew approximately 100 students from R-BB, and in the current 2017-2018 year, Superintendent Wilcox estimated that R-BB was receiving $342,000 less than they would have if they hadn’t lost students to Seven Oaks. (The Indiana Coalition for Public Education—Monroe County, of which I am a board member, is challenging the constitutionality of a private religious college authorizing charters, in federal court. Our suit names Seven Oaks as well as state officials.)

On top of the 2009 funding cuts, Richland Bean-Blossom was now losing money to “school choice”: $200,000 to vouchers, $340,000 to a charter. Separately, because it only had 150 students, R-BB administrators calculated that Stinesville Elementary cost them $621,000 each year that was not covered by the per-student tuition grant for 150 students.

When choosing means losing
Stinesville Elementary is the highest scoring elementary school in the Richland Bean Blossom school corporation, with 74.4% passing both English/language arts and math in 2017. (The new charter school in town, Seven Oaks, by contrast, had 37.4% pass both language arts and math. Stinesville and Seven Oaks serve similar rates of children who qualify for free and reduced lunch.) While the Stinesville personnel and parents are proud of the scores, they talk about the culture of the school. They love their principal, Mr. Glen Hopkins, a tall young man with a warm smile. They love that their kids are engaged and learning, not just reading and math, but also to work together and care for other people. They love the personal feel in the school, the small class sizes. They believe their school is an excellent school, and indeed the state assigned Stinesville an “A” rating this year. All the other Richland-Bean Blossom schools received A’s, too.

At the community meeting, young parents are hoping to stave off the impending loss of an effective and beloved rural school. The superintendent tries to respond to some questions, as does the board president, Jimmy Durnil, who is also Ellettsville’s chief of police and president of the parks and recreation board. The other board members are silent, but they are there—Dana Kerr, Debra Merry, Larry Thrasher, and Randy Wright—sitting in front of their neighbors, strangers and acquaintances, people they are likely to see at the IGA, some of whom they may know from high school athletics decades before. A former Stinesville homecoming queen, from when Stinesville still had a high school, has worn her tiara, in her graying hair, and her sash.
Speakers in public comment have questions about the degree of investment in Stinesville Elementary over the years. They question the timing of letting the community know the school was being considered for closure, just about a month before the board would vote. They question whether more steps could be taken to attract students. They question the financial calculations made by the administration and the capacity of the other elementary schools, Edgewood Primary and Edgewood Intermediate, to absorb more students. They question the length of the bus rides for young kids and the disruption of the loving community that this school provides their children.

Nobody is drawing connections between this moment and Indiana’s school choice program, and why should they? Wasn’t that about failing schools? Wasn’t it about black and brown urban children? What could the decisions of the House Committee on Education and the Senate Committee on Education and Career Development have to do with this? Stand for Children, Indianapolis Public Schools, the charters authorized by the Indianapolis mayor’s office and Ball State, what do they have to do with this?
The leaders of the local private schools accepting vouchers are not in the room. Neither is the Seven Oaks board, which is required to hold public meetings, and does monthly, but is not elected. State representative Bob Heaton, whose district includes Ellettsville, voted with his party to enlarge the charter program and to initiate and expand the voucher program. He is not here. It is only the Richland Bean Blossom board members, with their diminished finances and outsized power, sitting at the long tables, absorbing the anger and emotion of this tight-knit community.

When public comment is over, many in the Stinesville crowd have red eyes. They think the board has made up its mind. They are right. On Monday, October 25, 2017, the Richland-Bean Blossom board voted 4-1 to close Stinesville Elementary School.

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