By John Dodge
CHICAGO (CBS) — Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is a big fan of charter schools.
His new GOP neighbor in Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner, loves them too.
In the name of education reform, both are pushing more of them to give parents a greater choice when it comes to sending their children to school.
The concept of providing “school choice” for families in the form of using taxpayer money for privately run, charter schools is hardly new.
Important: That is taxpayer money that is being taken away from traditional public schools. It’s not a spare pot of gold.
So, that raises a few questions.
If these concepts are a panacea for what ails public education, why are only 3 percent of Indiana children enrolled in them?
Well, because research shows they don’t work (they generally don’t turn out higher-achieving students) and aren’t a terribly popular option for families.
In fact, six of the eight charter schools in Lake County, Indiana received failing grades last year from the state.
Are all charter schools failures? Of course not. But there is plenty of evidence to show that they don’t deserve tens of millions of dollars in public money.
Yet, the money keeps flowing in places like Indiana.
So, if these concepts don’t work, then why are they so popular within the walls of the Statehouse in Indianapolis?
It’s a classic case of following the money
Consider the example of House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning.
Mr Behning, according to his campaign webpage, “Authored legislation to create the nation’s most expansive school choice scholarship program, giving Hoosier families the ability to choose the best educational environment for their kids. He’s also been a key leader in strengthening Indiana’s public charter schools and ensuring that dollars follow the child in education funding.”
There is this group in Washington, D.C. called American Federation for Children.
They like charter schools so much that they are willing to pay a big price to get them.
So, what do they do? In 2014, according to campaign finance reports, they wrote checks for nearly $1 million to another group, called Hoosiers For Quality Education.
HQE, no surprise, also likes charter schools and vouchers, and is committed to dispelling the “myths” spewed by critics of these education reforms.
HQE is also committed to cracking open its piggy bank for legislators, typically around $1,000 or so per friendly candidates, according to 2014 campaign finance reports.
HQE handed out a handful of $1,000 checks to lawmakers on the House Education Committee, which recently passed a pair of bills that would strip the elected State Education Superintendent, Glenda Ritz, of her powers and also the board unchecked authority to hire consultants and award contracts aimed at improving education.
The former State Education Superintendent, Tony Bennett, was seen around the statehouse this week. During committee testimony, it was learned that Bennett is a consultant for HQE.
What would be the odds of seeing Mr. Bennett become involved again on the state board if these bills ultimately pass?
At any rate, how much do you think HQE (Also known as Hoosiers for Economic Growth) gave to Mr. Behning in 2014?
Behning also got $5,000 from Pence’s campaign fund, plus another $2,000 from Charter Schools USA.
So, there you have just one reason why charter schools are so popular in the Hoosier State.
In fact they are so popular, that the Republicans want to lavish charter schools with tens of millions of dollars more in state money.
Money that will be taken away from the other 97 percent of children to attend good, old-fashioned public schools in the state.
In Lake County, Ind., 6 of 8 charter schools failed. Their reward? Tens of thousands of extra dollars.
Voters in Illinois can expect similar scenarios to emerge in Springfield.
Although, a key difference is that the legislature in Indiana is controlled by Pence’s party. In Illinois, Rauner needs to deal with Democrats on this issue.
Full disclosure: I am a parent of Indiana school children in a great public school system.
Lobbyists toss money around to push a variety of agendas. In Behning’s case, he also got money from a beer PAC, various medical groups and even the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
However, in this case, it’s for an agenda that doesn’t generate positive results for the next generations.
A fully accountable charter school system might actually not be a bad idea, if there was enough money to go around. It’s not such a good idea when that money is taken away from the overwhelming majority of students.