The Schools You Voted For

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]e were never going to win.  Any of us with a scintilla of common sense knew that Mitch Daniels had Hoosier voters exactly where he wanted them.  We knew that if the 2010 midterm election gave him the legislative votes he needed to push his long sought education agenda, then we would find ourselves bound for a face-first trip into the canvas.

The election went his way.  His gloves came off.  We went down.

As defenders of public education, our biggest mistake was thinking we could navigate past the anecdotes.  Everyone carries some sort of public education grudge.  Everyone.  Maybe it was the basketball coach who cut you in tenth grade.  Maybe it was the history teacher who showed Forrest Gump three times a year.  Maybe it was the math teacher who didn’t budge on that 89.4% for the term.  It may have been the Spanish teacher who saddled you with worksheets and meaningless busywork.  Or perhaps it was the flabby P.E. teacher who ate doughnuts while he watched his students run around the track.  Or maybe it was me: the opinionated English teacher who should have kept some of those opinions to himself.  Whomever it was, whatever the circumstances were, too many Hoosiers held too many resentments.  Throw in all those summers off for a dose of added resentment, and the battle was over.  Slam dunk.

When I sat down with activist and radio host Justin Oakley in the winter of late 2015, he looked me in the eye and made it clear that everything hung on 2016.  Hope still lived back then.  Glenda Ritz had won three years earlier, and she seemed poised to repeat.  Mike Pence was fumbling his way past mockery and well into oblivion.  John Gregg seemed to be learning from his 2012 mistakes.

But in the ashes of what was the morning of November 9, 2016 public education was finished.  Today, the remnants of what was a “free and public education” lay prostrate, kept on life-support thanks to constitutional provisions and limited infrastructure.  But once the new cornerstones are laid the constitutional amendments will follow.

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The schools you voted for are on their way.  And for those of you who can afford them, you’ll most likely be happy…happier than you were sending your kids to the local community school.  What kind of schools are we talking about?  The answer to that is as varied as were the “problems” which prompted the reform process to begin with.  But from a strictly conjectural perspective, let me offer my own theory as to how it will play out where I live, one hour west of Indianapolis along The National Road corridor.

Putnam County currently supports four, smaller school “corporations,” supporting the needs of roughly 6,000 total students—1,900 of whom attend high school.  My home town of Greencastle, sits in the shadows of DePauw University, a school boasting a proud tradition offering quality liberal-arts education to students from around the world.  For generations, the university’s faculty have enmeshed themselves into the local community, serving in local government, working with local good-will organizations, and sending their children to Greencastle High School.

Recently, however, many younger faculty have opted to commute from larger towns such as Plainfield and Avon.  Some of those made the choice so they could live closer to Indy and enjoy the benefits of increased traffic and an inflated cost of living.  Others wanted to send their kids to larger schools with more diverse course offerings and other, “better” educational opportunities.  In fact at this time, GHS is missing three immensely intelligent young ladies now attending boarding schools.  Because of DePauw’s proximity to Greencastle, our conjectural school (let’s call it Wheel House Academy for the sake of discussion) will cater to this group of students.  We won’t operate it in exclusion of other—non-DePauw-related students—we will simply operate with their expectations and demands in mind.  Parents and students preferring more industrialized or agrarian forms of education (tech schools, 7-period day schools, etc.) will likely pursue options in other parts of the county.  This, by the way, is the first by-product of the schools you’ve voted for: niche-group education.

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The schools you voted for are on their way.  And for those of you who can afford them, you’ll most likely be happy…

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In this future, Indiana will have finalized its long-sought “backpack full of cash” approach to school funding, and will attach a “dollar-figure” to each student.  Under this construct, parents and students can choose the school they wish to attend, and the money follows the student to that school.  This model works in conjunction with the state’s explosive charter-school legislation, all designed to open up schools to a sort of hybrid state-funded/free-market environment.  Currently, that dollar-figure sits around $6,500 per child.  By the time we open Wheel House Academy, however, the state will have carefully and deliberately “dialed-down” that number—let’s put it at $5,000.

Because our “clientele” will demand good teachers, we’re going to have to do something the state of Indiana isn’t willing to do: pay well.  Good teachers are expensive.  We’re going to want PhD’s and master’s degree specialists, and we’re going to have to pay them at least $70,000…if not more.  If we want to build a staff of 50 teachers to attract the ideal enrollment numbers we’re seeking, we will need a lot more cash on top of the state money that Wheel House Academy receives.  Right away, parents who send their children to our school will have to pay $500 out of pocket to sign on.

Because the parent-school relationship is so emotional it too often leads to conflict. Some parents may want to litigate a grievance.   Others may decide to pull their students mid-year and seek another school.  Under the auspices of stability, Wheel House will need to establish contractual obligations—similar to contracts for cell phone service, for example—and to do this effectively Wheel House Academy is going to need a legal team.  To defray those costs, parents who send their children to our school will have to now pay $1,500 out of pocket.

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This generation of Hoosier school children might make it through 13 years of school largely on the state’s dime.  The next generation won’t. 

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In order to reach optimum enrollment, we are going to need to market Wheel House Academy, with the intent to entice students to commute to Greencastle from neighboring counties.  We’re also going to have to pay for brick-and-mortar operating costs (heat, mortgage, communications, and technology) all of which pushes the family out-of-pocket costs to roughly $5,000.

This doesn’t account for the inevitable shrinkage of the state’s contribution, nor does it account for inflation and cost-of-living increases.  And all of this—of course—only accounts for a four-year education from grades 9-12.  Presumably, as Indiana increasingly privatizes the education process, parents will find similar price structures when they send their children to primary, intermediate, and middle schools along the way.

This doesn’t mean that poor children, children with severe social and learning disabilities, and other children facing hurdles don’t have options.  The state will most likely still operate some vestige of what once was the local, community, public school.  But as the amount of monies available continue to decrease, students attending these schools can hope for—at best—a charity school experience mirroring the kind Dickens and Bronte wrote about almost two-hundred years ago.  These dilapidated wrecks, by the way, will be lone remaining schools still bearing the “charter” designation—a designation which had ironically promised its students a rescue from the very conditions they will face every day they go to school.

Families with modest means can also opt for the corporate “McDonalds-Walmart” academies.  These will charge less tuition than places like Wheel House, but they will most likely experience higher teacher turnover, a less-qualified teaching staff, large (HUGE) student enrollment numbers, and a generally more impersonal rubber-stamped sort of learning experience.  And of course, there’s the Internet, where parents can pay even less and adolescents can flagrantly plagiarize their way to a meaningless high school diploma.

What really happens will vary in both form and detail from what I’ve hypothesized.  What won’t vary will be the net effect.  This generation of Hoosier school children might make it through 13 years of school largely on the state’s dime.  The next generation won’t.  Rather than fretting over how to pay for four years of college, those parents are going to have to figure out how to pay for 16 years if not more.  These may not sound like the schools the reformers promised you.  They are, however, the schools you voted for.

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[author title=”About Donovan Wheeler” image=”×150.jpg”]Wheeler proudly teaches AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He also contributes to the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and other publications. He started learning to play guitar last year, but he remains terrible at it.[/author]

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Featured Image: 1917 Allentown High School Classroom. Public Domain Image.

Donovan Wheeler
Author: Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches English to a horde of bright and lovably obnoxious high school seniors in a small college town. He has written in the past for Indiana on Tap and STATE Magazine, and is an occasional contributor to NUVO, Indy's alternate news website. Since picking up the guitar three years, he can now play a dozens songs while singing them quite badly.

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