Indiana's Moral Battle on School Vouchers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 19, 1998; Page A01
Fourth in a series of occasional articles
INDIANAPOLIS -- The contest between Rep. Julia Carson (D-Ind.) and Republican challenger Gary Hofmeister has become a clash of values, pitting hard-nosed American individualism against compassionate American egalitarianism.
Tom Viehmann, a white, 40-year-old owner of the Copier Connection, a small business downtown, put the case for Hofmeister in blunt terms. Asked why he will vote for the GOP challenger, Viehmann said: "Because what I want to do is take care of myself, and I'm capable of doing that. The less government we have, the better chance we have to take care of ourselves."
Dollie Reese, a black Postal Service worker, made the case for Carson. When there were problems with post office supervisors, Reese said, "She stood up for us. I think she is concerned about the working man, the middle-class people, the poor, the seniors, making sure their Social Security is in force, their health and welfare."
The contest here in Indiana's 10th Congressional District is typical of the way campaigns often attempt to force voters to choose between conflicting sets of values. Political candidates do this because they believe it is the way to win elections. Carson and Hofmeister have seized on beliefs and attitudes that citizens seek daily to balance -- tolerance and moral judgment, compassion and self-discipline, concern for the poor and the pursuit of self-interest -- and turned them into two competing and mutually exclusive ideologies.
A national survey by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University underscores this gulf between an electorate that sees the world in shades of gray and a political system that tends to eliminate the middle ground.
The congressional election here is between a black woman born out of wedlock 60 years ago who has built a powerful political organization based in the African American community, which makes up 30 percent of the district vote, and a 56-year-old divorced white male jewelry store owner active in local and national conservative causes.
The Hofmeister campaign is premised on the assumption that for him to win in this Democratic-leaning district, voters, especially white working-class voters, must be given stark choices on values-based issues if they are going to shift to the GOP.
"I don't believe that there is anyone in this district or anywhere in America that is homeless over a very long period of time unless they want to be," Hofmeister said on a local television talk show. "That would include the people that are hooked on alcohol and drugs."
In the 1960s, Hofmeister told the Old National Road Business Association here, "we kind of took our history, our traditions, our morals, our whole spiritual base, and we kind of flushed it, and now we are reaping the whirlwind. We've got to go back, and we've got to start talking about personal responsibility. . . . It's a 'tough love' world, it's a 'tough love' kind of program that works for people, not just coddling them."
Jay Height, a Hofmeister supporter, runs the Shepherd Community Ministries providing food, work and other services to the homeless. Height applies the kind of "tough love" policies Hofmeister supports.
There are, for example, specific times during the week when mothers can pick up food for their families; if someone shows up at the wrong time saying " 'my kids are hungry,' we say, 'Fine, okay, I need you to do this for me, you need to mop this floor.' Most every time, those folks leave," Height said, "and sometimes that can still bother me, but if my kids are hungry, I'm going to be willing to mop a floor. When you add structure, you add accountability."
To Carson, who ran the Marion County Center (Indianapolis) Township program providing welfare services before she was elected to Congress two years ago with 53 percent of the vote, this kind of "tough love" is anathema.
"I don't think you should punish children for the lack of accountability that may have been demonstrated by the parent," Carson said, noting that she initiated workfare programs and eliminated a $17 million deficit in the city's welfare budget. "So I would never, when I was township trustee, close my doors knowing that some parent had asked for food on behalf of children and was told no. I would not do that."
As a member of the state legislature, she noted, "I supported scholarships for prisoners. I make no apologies for that. I think if you want to reduce recidivism, you have to do something about it. You educate people and make them employable and give them something positive to do when they get out of prison."
American voters of all races and parties voice general agreement on such abstract principles as the importance of personal responsibility, that hard work pays off and that people shouldn't blame others for their failures, according to the Post/Kaiser/Harvard survey.
Fully 72 percent of Democrats, 84 percent of Republicans, 81 percent of whites and 64 percent of blacks agreed that "people should take responsibility for their own lives and economic well-being and not expect other people to help."
But contradictions also exist within the electorate. Substantial majorities in every major demographic category said people who don't get ahead have only themselves to blame, but similarly large majorities said the poor are poor "because of circumstances beyond their control." Only 21 percent said poverty results from a lack of effort.
The tension between individual responsibility and government obligation becomes apparent when voters are asked to choose between two statements: "The government in Washington should do everything it can to improve the standard of living of all Americans," or, improving the living standard "is not the government's responsibility;each person should take care of themselves."
The country is almost evenly divided, with 51 percent in favor of government action, 46 percent against. Democrats and African Americans are in favor of government intervention by 64 percent to 34 percent and 67 percent to 32 percent, respectively, while Republicans are opposed, 39 percent to 59 percent. Independents and whites are split evenly.
Carson and Hofmeister disagree on everything from free needles for drug addicts to mandatory trigger locks on handguns, from abortion to impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, from the death penalty to affirmative action.
But the issue that has the potential to cut most deeply here is the mounting Republican drive to enact at the state and federal level education tax credits, school vouchers or a combination of the two.
The voucher-tax credit debate pits individualism and the virtues of market forces in education against community obligation to perhaps the most important public institution Americans hold in common, the school system. The debate also places the value of giving individual parents more power to pick their children's schools against the value of ensuring that resources and quality students are not drained from the public schools, leaving them poorly equipped to help the worst off.
For the first time, public schools across Indiana have been required this year to publish in local newspapers and display on a World Wide Web site the results of achievement tests given in the third, sixth and eighth grades, along with a 10th-grade test in math and English. Passing the 10th-grade test will be a requirement for graduation starting in 2000.
The results of these tests were devastating for parents of children in the Indianapolis school system.
Statewide, 42 percent of 10th-graders failed the math test, but in Indianapolis, 75 percent did. Thirty percent of all students flunked the English-language arts test statewide, while 59 percent of Indianapolis 10th-graders did. Altogether, 46 percent of Indiana students failed one or both of the tests, meaning they won't qualify to graduate until they pull their scores up, while an overwhelming 79 percent of the Indianapolis students -- eight out of 10 -- will not graduate without improving their scores.
"Just about everybody I talk to agrees the system is broke and we need to do something foundational," Hofmeister said. "So I am for some kind of tax credit, voucher system, that allows people to pick and choose their own schools."
Such programs, according to Carson, tend to isolate the poor from the working and middle classes, who can use tax credits, and drain resources from public schools.
"To blame public schools is a cruel hoax," she said. "The public schools are not the problem. The problems that public schools face -- and those are the deterioration of buildings and the oversize classes -- was created by politicians. They [Republicans] are too quick to put the blame other than where it belongs. . . . If you lose a button on a coat, you don't throw out the coat, you get a new button."
Parental discontent with the school system, according to Republicans and Democrats, is beginning to reach the boiling point, with Democratic opposition to proposals subsidizing private and parochial school tuition starting to fray in the state legislature. State Rep. William Crawford, a black Democrat, said he now supports vouchers, but not tax credits because they would not help the very poor. State Rep. John Day, a white Democrat, said he supports proposals to help parents with tuition costs.
State Sen. Billie Breaux, co-chair of the Carson campaign, finds these trends disastrous: "You are going to end up with a public school system of nothing but have-nots, of the lesser of the have-nots, and you've taken all the resources from those schools. I fail to see how this advances the situation."
The issue of school vouchers is a case study of a policy that is both divisive -- the public nationally is split right down the middle, 49 percent to 49 percent -- and highly volatile: Many people on both sides of the debate are quick to change their minds when presented with negative information about the consequences of their choices.
Of those who said they support vouchers, nearly half said they would shift their position if presented with evidence that the program reduced money for public schools -- a central claim of opponents.
Similarly, of those who oppose vouchers, nearly half said they would drop their opposition if they could be convinced that without vouchers, low-income children would have less of a chance to go to better-quality schools -- the central argument of proponents.
Republicans favor vouchers by 56 percent to 41 percent, while Democrats oppose them 54 percent to 44 percent. Independents are opposed 53 percent to 44 percent.
Black legislators, almost all of whom are Democrats, are generally opposed to vouchers, but blacks overall support them by 54 percent to 44 percent. Whites are split right down the middle.
Catholics and born-again evangelicals are both supportive of vouchers, by 61 percent to 38 percent and 55 percent to 41 percent, respectively, while Protestants generally are slightly opposed, 52 percent to 45 percent.
At a meeting of the Washington Township parents' council in Indianapolis, the tension over public vs. private schools could be felt as state Rep. James D. Atterholt (R), who supports education tax credits, initially struggled to explain why he did not put his child in the public school kindergarten. As the discussion continued, however, Atterholt became more direct:
"I've seen how much time teachers spend with maybe two or three bad apples, the problem students, the disruptive students in that classroom," he said. "I think it's time that the rights of those children who want to learn begin to outweigh the rights of those children who don't want to learn and want to be disruptive. . . . I am concerned that there is this mind-set to reach out to those kids at risk at the expense of those kids who are not."
But Carson argues that what is needed is more public support and money for public school teachers so that they will be able to reach out to needy children, and she cites her own experience as an example.
"When I was in grade school I couldn't even tell people what my name was because I had such a terrible speech impediment," Carson recalled in an interview. "But . . . the public school teachers got me to a speech therapist who started making me feel better about myself, building my esteem, because I was the only one in my class who didn't have a father at home, because I was born without one. . . . You should have the room and the latitude [in public schools] to extend the kind of support that most teachers want to extend."
Both Carson and Hofmeister point to their own experiences as the basis for their contrasting stands on compassion, individualism, tolerance and discipline.
Hofmeister cites the fact that 15 years ago, he had "a serious drinking problem. I'm not particularly proud of that, but that to me is one of the reasons that I have this philosophy of 'tough love.' I know that when you hit the brick wall, that you don't just fall down and die. . . . When you overcome problems, look them in the eye, then you are stronger for the next group of problems that comes along."
Hofmeister argues that the federal government under Democrats has encouraged an erosion of responsibility so dangerous that soon "you have a society that is going to border on chaos." Programs passing out free needles to drug addicts only serve to encourage and sanction activities that government should be trying to restrain, he said.
Legalized abortion, Hofmeister contends, lies at the root of what he sees as contemporary moral decay, especially the late-term procedure known by opponents as "partial-birth" abortion. In Hofmeister's graphic words, the baby is in "a breech position, it comes out, the arms and legs are moving, you reach in, stab it in the head to kill it, and then you suck the brains out."
Under an ethical system, Hofmeister said, in which "you can say that a baby should be killed right at the time it's going to be born, it's not too difficult then to understand why we see people killing people because they have better jackets or better tennis shoes."
For Carson, providing clean needles for addicts does not sanction wrongdoing. "Persons who are addicted use needles. They scrape them up in alleys, they pass needles around among themselves and then what we have are transmittable diseases. People get HIV, AIDS, all kinds of sicknesses by using dirty needles," she said. "I believe people who are addicted ought to be first and foremost able to walk into any clinic anywhere in this country and say, 'I'm a drug addict and I need treatment,' and get it."
On abortion, Carson's stand is 180 degrees from Hofmeister's. "I have maintained the position unequivocally that the U.S. government has no business interfering in medical decisions. Government should not be in the business of making medical decisions. That is between a woman, her God and her doctor."
While Carson and Hofmeister are separated by a deep canyon on these values and moral issues, the views of the American electorate are far more complex.
An overwhelming majority, 69 percent, agreed that "Americans are too tolerant and accepting of behaviors that in the past were considered immoral or wrong." This finding suggests strong public backing for Hofmeister's assertion that the abandonment of traditional values has gone too far.
But even though decisive majorities said Americans are too tolerant of behavior once considered immoral, decisive majorities are themselves tolerant of such behavior.
Fully 55 percent of the population said sex before marriage is acceptable, and another 19 percent said it is unacceptable but "should be tolerated by society." Only 24 percent said premarital sex should not be tolerated.
A striking 57 percent said out-of-wedlock childbearing is acceptable either "always" or "in some situations." Another 23 percent said it is "unacceptable, but should be tolerated," and only 18 percent found out-of-wedlock childbearing intolerable. In the case of divorce, the numbers are substantially larger: 19 percent said divorce was always acceptable, 57 percent said it was sometimes acceptable, and 14 percent said it was unacceptable but "should be tolerated." Only 9 percent reject divorce altogether.
A slim 51 percent majority described abortion as acceptable, and another 10 percent said it is not acceptable but should be tolerated. Unequivocal opposition was limited to 38 percent.
It is the nature of political campaigns to eliminate subtlety and nuance from issues, and to turn them into yes-or-no choices for voters.
State Rep. Mike Young (R), who is managing the Hofmeister campaign, has won fame in Indiana political circles as a strategist who is willing to push issues to the furthest limits. In 1994, for example, Young orchestrated a mailing accusing Democratic state representatives of voting in favor of "giving free limousine rides to welfare recipients who go to hospital emergency rooms."
In the current contest, Young has stirred controversy with brochures that show Hofmeister in a formal portrait, smiling, over the headline "Conservative," next to a dark and threatening photo of Carson that makes it hard to tell whether she is a man or woman, above the headline "Liberal."
One of the basic purposes of elections is to give the voters choices, Young said. "If you don't have a proper contrast, there is no way for people to vote one way or another."
Yet even strong supporters of candidates are sometimes conflicted about certain values. The ambiguity and complexity of the moral and values issues posed in the campaign between Carson and Hofmeister become apparent when voters and politicians who are not directly caught up in the contest discuss them.
Take, for example, Crawford, a Carson backer and liberal member of the legislature who is assured of reelection. He has broken with many of his black colleagues -- and his candidate -- to support school vouchers. The children of his African American constituents are often put at "an economic and educational disadvantage" because of the poor-quality education they receive, Crawford said. A voucher program would "empower parents to choose. There is nothing wrong with empowering parents to make choices."
Height, the conservative missionary and Hofmeister supporter, has faced equally tough decisions. His hard-nosed views that men and women should earn what they receive, even charity, begin to soften when he describes the men who began to show up at Shepherd Community mission after Indiana initiated new closures of mental institutions:
"Now we have all these mentally ill people on the street who can live, but have no life. No jobs program can help them, they are paranoid schizophrenic. What's the answer?
"Cutting off his benefits is not going to do any good. So there is that part of me, where I'm a Christian first and a conservative second and a Republican a distant third," Height said. "And it has to come down through that filter. So there is a part of me that says I have a responsibility as a Christian to care. The Bible tells us the poor will always be with us. For some, we cannot expect them to meet our expectations, but for many, they can."
Polling director Richard Morin and assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.
The Survey Team
These surveys are the fifth in a series of projects that The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University are conducting on contemporary issues.
Representatives of the three sponsors worked closely to develop the survey questionnaire and analyze the results on which this series is based. The Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation with Harvard University are publishing independent summaries of the findings; each organization bears the sole responsibility for the work that appears under its name. The Kaiser Family Foundation and The Post paid for the surveys and related expenses. The survey data will be sent later this year to the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, where copies of the survey questionnaire and data will be available.
The project team included Richard Morin, Post director of polling, and Claudia Deane, assistant director of polling; Robert J. Blendon, a Harvard University professor who holds joint appointments in the School of Public Health and the Kennedy School of Government, and John Benson, deputy director for public opinion and health/social policy at the Harvard School of Public Health; Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Mollyann Brodie, director of special projects for the Kaiser Foundation, a nonprofit organization that sponsors research into health care and other public policy issues.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company