State Senator Ryan Mishler is having serious misgivings about Indiana’s voucher program after trying to resolve parents’ complaints about bullying. He met with the school leadership and found them to be unresponsive to his concerns and indifferent to the parents. He had met previously with many public school leaders and had found them to be respectful and responsive. He was shaken, and he published this statement:

He began:

An Open Letter to District 9 on Voucher SchoolsI feel obligated to share my experience with a voucher school so parents are aware of the weight that has been on the families in a particular community. This buyer’s remorse is the consequence of repeated deficiencies and the effects that they are having on some of the school’s students and families. I hope that families heed my candor, but if nothing else, let this serve as a transparent record of my time with the school.

My first encounter was when the school reached out to me, wanting to “tweak” the current voucher program, which I did. Soon after, a parent contacted me stating their child had been suspended for five athletic games for consensually kissing a girl in school. At the parent’s request, I followed up about the reprimand with the principal, and voiced my opinion that the penalty did not fit the crime, and there seemed to be little due process for the student. I asked how they would have treated him if the student didn’t play a sport and was told that the school had been waiting on a response from the girl’s mother before deciding on any punishment. However, the principal made it clear that the student was held to a higher standard than his peers because he was an athlete. The suspension ended after two and a half games. When the single, minority mother and her child went in front of the school’s “disciplinary” board, they were told that he had not suffered enough.

About a year later, I ran into a parent who expressed their worry about how a student was being treated by a staff member. Over several months, many more contacted me with the same concern, regarding the same staff member and student. I discovered the staff member was previously fired for similar behavior at a public school. I felt I could go directly to this staff member in question to resolve the issue. During this meeting, I shared the information the parents brought to me, and the first comment made was, “I don’t care what parents think,” a worrisome start to the conversation. I mentioned we all make mistakes, but we need to learn from them, and correct our behavior. I was basically given the “there is nothing you can do about it” attitude.

After the unproductive confrontation, I looked to the parents who came to me to see how they wanted to proceed. Their suggestion was that I reach out to the superintendent. I made the call, and his advice was that I speak to the staff member and principal directly, which I had already done to no avail. The superintendent said in a phone conversation that he would be happy to meet with the concerned families. In a later email, he stated full confidence in the leadership at the school. They would investigate fully, give me a copy of the bullying policy, and he will be praying for me. The parents had put me in touch with a family who had previously gone to the administration for the same situation with the same staff member. Their story was that of neglect and humiliation. At that point, the Superintendent lost all credibility.

As a last resort, the parents agreed to a meeting with the principal, so I went ahead and scheduled. When we arrived, the principal met us at the door, but told us that he would not meet with us as a group, only one at a time. Each parent had to schedule their own meeting, and since I had scheduled the present one, he met with me. The others were asked to leave. I requested they stay to talk to me afterward, and the principal said they could, so long as they waited outside of the building. I petitioned for the parents, stating that they pay tuition so there was no way they were going to wait outside. After which, they were permitted to stand in the hall.

The meeting consisted of myself, the principal, and one other administrator. There, I shared the parent’s concerns again, as I had voiced them previously to the principal over the phone. They claimed it was the first they had heard of anything and that they didn’t understand why no one had come forward. When I mentioned the family that had brought forward the concerns, they admitted to meeting with them, and had some less-than-kind words to say about the family. I guess they didn’t count. I asked if they knew about the incident with the staff member in question at the previous school. The answer was yes.

I asked what procedures they had put in place so that the previous incident might not happen again. Their answer was they didn’t have to because it was public knowledge. At this point in the conversation, the other administrator in the room unloaded. I haven’t been spoken to like that in my twenty years of representing my community. Now, I did throw a few choice words back. The overall attitude seemed to be, who are you to interfere with our business. I must admit that I was very disturbed! I can see why the parents were so uncomfortable to come forward and speak with administration. This school received $2.87 million dollars in state tuition subsidy last year. That alone gave me every right to ask the questions. Plus, I had an obligation to those families I represent who turned to me when their children were being bullied and mistreated.

The parents scheduled their respective meetings, where they were told that the administration would look into the matter and meet with the students and other staff members. Several weeks passed and not a single student had a meeting. When asked why, the principal replied that they did not have the time. It was mentioned that if no action is taken, these parents will lose any trust they may have had in the school, and the response from the principal was that the school would have to take that chance. Many more weeks passed without any conversations held, which left the parents with no real answers to this urgent concern. I did receive a copy of an email sent from the principal to a parent acknowledging that the student did have an unfavorable experience at the school. During this silence, some parents reached out the Department of Education, only to be told the state agency had limited authority over voucher schools.

As this was going on, there was an altercation between another student and the staff member in question, resulting in the student leaving the school and even the student’s home. The only reason the family knew of the incident was because another staff member was so appalled, he personally reached out to the family and informed them what had taken place. Fortunately, an intervention brought the student home and back to school after a few weeks. No one from the school even bothered to reach out. Yet another minority family disregarded!

During this time frame, allegations of similar behavior emerged regarding yet another staff member. The parents discovered this employee also had a recent DUI. The school’s response for the DUI was that it occurred outside of work “on their own time.” Apparently, higher standards only applied to student athletes and not staff members. Eventually, this individual cut ties with the school, a decision that had been long overdue.

What really surprised me most is that it had been made public that some of these organizations had been abusing kids for over 50 years. One would think this kind of history would lead to these allegations being taken seriously and followed up on, but no such reform occurred. Now, I understand how they got away with that kind of behavior for so many years! Upon discovering there is no accountability for these schools, I began working with the chairman of the Senate Education Committee to help me put some procedures in place. I made a pledge to those parents that I would not support one additional dollar spent on the voucher program until there are policies put in place that protect these kids from abusive behavior and mistreatment. This is the most disgusting situation I have encountered in my 20 years in the Senate. I am appalled that this behavior continues to happen repeatedly.

I have worked with public schools from all over the state. When issues have come up, the administrators have always been proactive, looking into the matters brought into question, and responding promptly. That is the leadership that I am accustomed to and expect to see in the institutions responsible for instructing our children. When I see such blatant avoidance, I cannot help but believe that these administrators are knowingly hiding something more. I would not call that leadership!

Since this all unfolded, several of the families relocated so they could send their children to the public school of choice. I would advise families looking at voucher schools to be aware that they are on their own at this point and time. They should strongly consider an alternative to the blemished and blatantly flawed procedures of accountability when choosing a school for their child. We need to hold the schools to the same high level of accountability they expect from the students and their parents.