Elsener: A Life in Education Reveals Power, Necessity of Choice

The following guest blog is part of our weeklong celebration of National School Choice Week:

I have spent my life working to advance the educational opportunities of the students in my community – as a teacher, principal, superintendent, foundation executive committed to education, and now a university president. Without exception, my experiences have made clear to me that it is in the best of interest of students and their parents/guardians that they have many options available to them to meet their educational needs.

There are undoubtedly many important projects, programs and initiatives that have been pursued in support of education over the years. Yet, I know of none more important than placing the power over how a child is educated in the hands of her parents/guardians. It is true that not every parent/guardian will make perfect decisions, but in the main and over the long haul, they are vastly more knowledgeable and invested in what is best for their child than anyone else – including school officials.

Parents/guardians have seen the number of school options available to them multiply tenfold in recent years – charter schools, parochial schools, private schools and public schools among them. This choice has given parents/guardians great influence over not only the number and variety of options available to them but also the quality of the education offered in each program.

It is evident from watching choice work in the marketplace in Indiana that it has brought many creative schools to fruition and challenged the existing schools (parochial, private, traditional public, etc.) to look for innovative ways to become more attuned to the needs of the students and families they serve. In contrast, social structures that emerge from a monopoly are inherently less innovative and attuned to those they serve. When options are valued and innovation is rewarded, excellent outcomes can and will be achieved, especially when related to the provision of integral social services like education.

Historically, Indiana has struggled to advance educational outcomes to a level that meets the needs of the times. But in recent years, the ground-breaking reforms of state leaders have laid the foundation for a “new spring” of options that will be advantageous not only for students and their parents/guardians but for educators as well.

It has been exciting for me to see so many outstanding educators capitalize on this new ability to start and/or serve in new, pioneering schools and take advantage of the opportunity to use state resources to develop new and innovative approaches for student learning. Great principals, great educators have been given a renewed sense of professional purpose and an openness to engaging an entrepreneurial spirit in the development of programs that strategically address our children’s educational needs. I am fully confident that in the coming years these new options will improve student learning outcomes, attendance levels and graduation rates to such an extent that Indiana will ascend to the top of national educational attainment levels.

School systems that thrive are those which emerge from an environment where parents, students and educators have many options through which to pursue intellectual growth and development. Educational offerings that emerge from a monopoly where one set of adults has singular power over education – its offerings, delivery and cost – will almost certainly lead to stagnation. School choice is the path by which Indiana will see its students reach heights of educational excellence heretofore unforeseen and ensure that the thousands of wonderful educators in our state are allowed to fully engage their many talents to bring innovation and instructional entrepreneurism to our quest to develop every child’s abilities to the fullest.

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Dan Elsener is president of Marian University in Indianapolis.

National School Choice Week: Start the Celebrations!

National School Choice Week, running today through Friday, is an opportunity to highlight and celebrate the laws and programs that help parents choose the best educational settings for their children. Until recently, Indiana was mostly a spectator to that celebration. Today, we’re the focus of it due to Indiana’s 2011 laws creating our state voucher program and significantly expanding our charter school and virtual education laws.

It’s not that Indiana was void of school choice prior to 2011. We’ve had a charter school law since 2001 and we passed an educational tax credit in 2009. Both were significant accomplishments that the Indiana Chamber was proud to have helped lead. But both also demonstrate the critical importance of implementation and “minor” policy distinctions.

We were the 38th state in the country to pass a charter school law; but there were high hopes when, shortly after passage, our new law was ranked the sixth best in the country. Some of those hopes have been fulfilled, especially with the tremendous successes of charter schools in Indianapolis, but a policy decision by State Superintendent Suellen Reed almost stopped that hope dead in its tracks.

Despite language in the original law stating explicitly that funds for charter school students would follow immediately from their previous schools to the charter schools where they enrolled, Reed determined unilaterally that funds could not flow to charter schools until January of each school year when the school funding formula is reset.

The result was that charter schools in Indiana would be forced to operate for six months without any state funds, a challenge that no other public school in Indiana has ever faced. Ultimately, the issue was partially resolved through the creation of a state-backed, low-interest loan program, but the 2002 decision remains even today as a significant barrier to charter school growth in the state.

The 2009 Scholarship Tax Credit has faced its own tough challenges. One of the main ones is the low level of Indiana’s credit – just 50% of the donor’s contribution. It may sound generous, but in other states, where similar programs have thrived far better than ours, the programs offer 70, 80 and even 100% credits. Indeed, Indiana’s 50% credit is the lowest of any such program in the entire country.

Today, we celebrate a voucher law, passed in 2011, that has produced the largest first-year participation rate of any voucher law in American history. The celebration continues, as this year’s participation doubled that of the first year. Yet, even that success is tempered by some coming challenges.

Among them, Indiana’s law is the only choice law in the country that bans kindergarteners from participating. As some lawmakers have said, they think it’s a good idea to require parents to first give a “test run” to the local public schools – even when the parents know plenty about their options. Indeed, the suggestion of such “test runs” is directly counter to core philosophy of school choice – that parents are best positioned to determine the best educational settings for their children.

So we celebrate this week, and we will revel in the fact that states around the country are now chasing us – trying now to replicate the tremendous successes that we had in 2011. Those successes are well worth celebrating, but much work remains to be done.

In the next three days, this space will feature the thoughts of three Indiana leaders who have helped make choice a reality in Indiana. Robert Enlow, president of the Friedman Foundation, will help put Indiana’s role in a national perspective; Dan Elsener, president of Marian University, will share why choice has been a lifelong passion of his; and Lindsey Brown, executive director of School Choice Indiana, will report on the state of Indiana’s choice options.

We hope you’ll join us in this national celebration and will revel, as we will, in the newly minted attention that Indiana has earned. But as we’ll note in a closing column on Friday, the challenges that remain are more than just policy oriented; in many ways, they sit at the core of our political and policy environments.

Meanwhile, check out the web site for National School Choice Week and look especially for the celebrations and other events that are occurring throughout Indiana. You might even find a celebration near you!

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Derek Redelman is vice president of education and workforce development for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.