When Fort Wayne Community Schools Superintendent Wendy Robinson introduces herself at education conferences, she is sometimes greeted with eyerolls and sarcastic responses.
“People will say to me, 'Gee, thanks a lot,' because I'm from Indiana,” Robinson said while sitting in the district headquarters in Fort Wayne in August.
The educators don't have innate hostility toward Indiana, but they see how the Hoosier State's education policy is influencing the country – and they don't like it.
Indiana is home to the largest school voucher program in the country, allowing nearly 35,000 kids to attend private schools using taxpayer-funded scholarships. In its six years of existence, the program has become a lightning rod for controversy.
On one end of the spectrum, right-leaning federal policymakers look to Indiana as a model of what's possible for private school choice. Vice President Mike Pence championed its expansion when he was Indiana's governor, and President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have made the expansion of private school choice programs their signature education goal.
But for public school educators like Robinson, the idea that the program might be seen as a model to be replicated is unacceptable. She thinks the voucher program represents a solution to something that was never a problem.
Only a small minority of students who choose vouchers previously attended failing public schools, and many of the students who receive vouchers never attended public schools, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education. Instead, taxpayers are footing the tuition bill for children who may have otherwise paid for private schools, while public schools are simultaneously drained of resources, Robinson said.
Proponents of voucher programs say this criticism misses the point. The goal is to provide non-affluent students with the same exact educational options as rich kids.
“We want to focus less on school type and more on giving parents the power to choose where they want to go to school,” said Robert Enlow, president of the education choice group EdChoice, based in Indianapolis.