WATERLOO — Northeast Indiana’s state senators heard concerns about school vouchers and career education at a public forum Saturday morning in the DeKalb High School auditorium.
Sens. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, and Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, differed in their responses to opponents of proposed expansion of private-school vouchers.
Both senators responded sympathetically to fears that funding might be cut to four programs at Impact Institute at Kendallville and similar career and technical education centers.
Approximately 50 people attended the two-hour forum sponsored by the DeKalb Chamber Partnership. Staff members for U.S. Rep. Jim Banks and U.S. Sen. Mike Braun also spoke.
Garrett-Keyser-Butler school board member Larry Getts spoke passionately against an increase in funding for Indiana’s Choice Scholarships that allow parents to use tax dollars as vouchers for tuition at private schools.
“Any citizen can look up and see exactly where the money in public schools is going,” Getts said. “I don’t feel that the private schools are held to that same accountability standard.”
Audience members applauded Getts at that point. He said he was speaking for himself and not for Garrett schools.
Gets asked the senators how their colleagues can support “sending hundreds of millions of dollars to organizations where we have no idea where that money is going.”
Glick agreed with Getts, but Kruse defended the state’s voucher system.
“Public school education is where it’s at in northeast Indiana, and I’m very upset that this particular issue is coming to us through the budget,” Glick said.
She noted that in her home LaGrange County, large numbers of students attend private Amish schools, “and they take not one dime from the state — and that’s their choice.”
Kruse said he has voted for school choice programs over the years, and vouchers have “helped a lot of people” who felt their children needed charter or private schools.
Private schools are accountable to the parents who are using the vouchers, Kruse said, adding that he believes their budgets are available.
“Like it or not, we are doing the best we can in distributing the money in a way that’s helping the students,” he said.
However, later in the forum, Kruse added, “I’m not an advocate of increasing the expansion of the voucher system.”
Both Kruse and Glick said the situation is complicated because the voucher expansion is part of the overall state budget, which eventually must be approved.
“I will go right up the brink” in trying to change the portion of the budget involving vouchers, Glick pledged.
“Sometimes we do have to vote no on budgets that have line items we don’t agree with,” DeKalb High School teacher Jed Freels told the senators.
DeKalb Central teacher Dawn Passwater said she is very emotional about vouchers and can accept that they will continue, “but what concerns me is the expansion.”
“Ninety percent of Indiana students are in public schools, and that’s where the majority of the funding should go,” DeKalb Middle School teacher Shelly Kennedy said. “Why, during a pandemic time, would you be doing this to teachers who are at their wits’ end?”
Kennedy also spoke about the forum’s other dominant issue — funding for career and technical education. She read a message from her son about the benefits he gained as a 2016 graduate of the interactive media program at Impact Institute.
Jim Walmsley, director of Impact Institute, said the proposed state budget would defund four programs at Impact — interactive media, cosmetology, culinary arts and marine service technology — involving approximately 170 students
“Our education system is designed to serve all students … not just students that would go into what the state would identify as priority areas,” Walmsley said.
“We’re in desperate need of people who can fix and repair these motorboats that we’re building in our area,” Glick responded. “Somebody in Indianapolis who’s not familiar with our communities is picking winners and losers. … This affects not only the 170 students, but all the people they would serve.”
Jeannette Rinard, Impact’s instructor for interactive media, said she wants more transparency in how the state rated her program as “less than moderate value,” threatening its funding.
Rinard said her courses prepare students for jobs at Sweetwater in Fort Wayne and 40 video production companies in the area.
Kruse said that over the years and around the state, “everyone without fail says Impact Institute is the very best in the state of Indiana.”
Commissioners also heard from Jim Deetz, a former welding instructor at Impact, who said a proposed new uniform state curriculum for welding is lacking. He added that Impact badly needs funding for a new welding building.
DeKalb County farmer Lynn Reinhart said proposed cuts to career education could affect agriculture classes and FFA.
“We all require a supply of food, so I don’t know how they look at those as not being necessary and essential,” Reinhart said.
On a different topic, DeKalb County Commissioner Mike Watson said he opposes a bill that would override local control of zoning for solar and wind power installations.
“There’s a place for solar, there’s a place for wind, but I think the locals should be the ones to determine where that place is,” Glick responded. She said, “we’ve had a couple of county commissioners commit suicide because of the vitriolic nature of … these public hearings and meetings where people are so adamant about building the wind turbines or taking areas and dedicating to solar and wind that the emotional pressure has just been too much.”
“I do side with the local control on wind and solar energy,” Kruse said, adding that he would vote against House Bill 1381, which would limit local control.
Janelle Graber, director of Eckhart Public Library in Auburn, told the senators that Senate Bill 288 is unnecessary, because libraries do much to protect children.
Co-authored by Kruse, SB 288 would have made it possible to a prosecute a librarian for distributing reading material that is harmful to minors. In a printed handout, Kruse wrote that he is disappointed that SB 288 failed in the Senate this year and hopes it will be considered in the future.
Gräber also spoke about one of the forum’s main themes, saying she and her husband graduated from DeKalb High School, sent their children to private school, but did not use vouchers.
“Public school builds community in very, very unique and awesome ways,” Graber said. “Please don’t expand the voucher program.”