Commentary: Drug tests, food stamps, school choice and human dignity


By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, wants to prevent poor people from making poor choices.

McMillin’s House Bill 1351 would require Indiana’s welfare recipients to undergo drug testing. The bill also would prevent Hoosiers who get food stamps from using them to buy unhealthy foods.

Commentary button in JPG - no shadowMcMillin’s reasoning – and that of the 70 other House members who voted with him on the measure – is that the state can compel poor Hoosiers to take these steps because those Hoosiers receive government funds. The tests and the restrictions are conditions for taking the cash.

Critics, of course, note that many people – including legislators – get money from the government, but the Legislature has demonstrated no desire to limit their dietary choices or force them to take drug tests in order to collect their checks.

Why, then, the poor?

McMillin says his motivation doesn’t spring from a desire to humiliate poor people or make their lives harder. It’s just that he just

John Krull, publisher,

John Krull, publisher,

wants to help people having hard time make good choices.

“This bill, on all fronts, is an effort to help people,” he said. “It’s an effort to help children. It’s an effort to help those people who find themselves in a hard time and can’t find a job. It’s an effort to help people who unfortunately have lost to drugs and get them help.”

Fair enough.

What’s curious, though, is that this logic is applied in such a limited fashion.

Legislators seem to have no problem allowing people to make bad choices when those choices conform to their political or ideological agendas.

Others have noted that, at the same time McMillin’s bill was working its way through the House, the Senate considered a proposal that would have allowed private schools accepting vouchers to opt out of state-imposed standardized tests. The Senate didn’t approve the measure, presumably because, like the welfare recipients, those schools were receiving state funds and thus had to abide by state-imposed conditions.

The problem with that position is that it tears away the legal fig leaf that, in theory at least, makes school vouchers constitutional. Both the U.S. and Indiana constitutions present road blocks to having government funds go directly to religious institutions or schools. The way around those road blocks has been to launder the money through the parents’ hands – thus, the voucher.

But that also makes the parents responsible for the expenditure of government funds devoted to their children’s educations.

Do we want to apply the same logic to parents who take vouchers that we seem to be about to apply to poor Hoosiers? Do we want to tell them that they’re not allowed to make poor choices in regard to their children’s educational development?

Do we want to say, for example, that a parent can’t use a voucher to remove a child from a public school and put that child in a private school if the private school’s school grade is lower than that of the public school? At present, we don’t impose those restrictions.

Or how about if junior’s academic performance or standardized test scores drop after she or he has used a voucher to go to a new school? Do we revoke the voucher? Do we tell junior – and junior’s parents – that the student has to go back to the school where he or she performed better? Do we say to junior and junior’s parents that their choice just isn’t healthy and that we want to help them to make a better one when it comes to schools?

The premise of McMillin’s bill is that by taking government funds Indiana citizens who receive welfare waive their Fourth Amendment rights.

Shouldn’t we then also argue that school voucher families who exercise a right of choice through a complicated legal sleight-of-hand that creates constitutional challenges waive that right when they don’t make good choices?

Jud McMillin wants to make sure that poor Hoosiers take care of their bodies.

Shouldn’t we also care about their minds?

Or do we want to simply say that some Hoosiers just have more rights than others?

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.