Has the time come for free textbooks?

It seemed that, finally, after years of debate, the stars had aligned. Indiana parents would no longer have to pay annual rental fees for their children’s school textbooks.

The governor was on board, and so was the leadership of the House of Representatives. “The time has come,” a key member of the Ways and Means Committee said. “We talk about free education and everything else, but the textbook fees have climbed to an astronomical amount.”

Mug shot of Gov. Eric Holcomb
Gov. Eric Holcomb

The year was 1997. Frank O’Bannon, a Democrat, had just taken office as governor, and Democrats controlled the House. But Republicans controlled the Senate, and they weren’t keen on having the state pay for textbooks and required instructional materials.

Neither was Suellen Reed, the Republican superintendent of public instruction. “It would be like a tax break for parents, but it does nothing to further education,” she said.

And so it went. Year after year, Democrats introduced legislation to have the state pay for textbooks. Year after year, Republicans blocked the idea. Eventually, it seemed that Democrats gave up.

In 1997, Indiana was one of 10 states where families had to pay for textbooks. Now it’s one of seven.

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Charter schools and property taxes

The state of Indiana provides more generous funding to charter schools than to the traditional public schools that 88% of Hoosier students attend. But charter schools, unlike school districts, don’t get local property tax revenue. Expect their supporters to lobby the state legislature to change that.

A recent Indianapolis Business Journal column lays out the argument. Its authors are Bart Peterson, a former Indianapolis mayor who now heads Christel House schools, and Teresa Lubbers, a former higher education commissioner and state senator who wrote Indiana’s charter school law in 2001.

“Families that pay local property taxes to support local schools deserve fair funding for their children, no matter what local public school they choose,” they write. “We hope the Legislature will correct this imbalance in the upcoming legislative session.”

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Pence’s education legacy

Mike Pence’s new book is called “So Help Me God,” so everything in it must be God’s truth, right? I won’t try to fact-check all 560 pages, but Pence’s claims about his education record as Indiana governor should get attention. And that part is mostly true.

He does bend the truth, however, with this statement: “All told during my term, Indiana had the single largest budget increase in K 12 education in its history.”

Cover of 'So Help Me God' with photo of Mike Pence.

Pence made the same claim in 2016 when he was introduced as Donald Trump’s running mate. FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Institute, investigated and termed it misleading. It’s true that there were modest increases in state K-12 funding each year Pence was governor, FactCheck’s Lori Robertson notes; but, in constant dollars, those weren’t the biggest in history.

She consulted with Larry DeBoer, a Purdue economist and an expert on school and government finance in Indiana, who showed that, adjusted for inflation, Indiana’s K-12 budget peaked before Pence took office. “In real terms, and as a share of Indiana’s economy, education spending is a bit smaller than it was in 2010 and 2011,” DeBoer said at the conclusion of Pence’s term.

FactCheck was harsher with Hillary Clinton’s claim that Pence “slashed” education funding in Indiana, labeling it false. It did note that, under Pence, Indiana shifted funding to growing suburban districts; Indianapolis Public Schools lost $17 million as a result.

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Reinventing high school … again?

Indiana legislators want to “reinvent high school.” Didn’t we just do that?

We know it’s a priority, because House Speaker Todd Huston said so at a legislative preview event with the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. Also, high school is a focus for questions House Republicans are asking in their pre-session constituent surveys.

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‘A life profoundly well-lived’

Harmon Baldwin’s first job in education was as a teacher and coach at a small Indiana school. He once said that, if he had been a better coach, he might never have become a school administrator. That would have been a huge loss.

Baldwin, who died last week at 100, contributed so much to education and civic life during a four-decade career and a long, active retirement. He was smart, sensible and always good-humored. Public education has probably never had a better ambassador.

He was also a living encyclopedia of school history in Indiana. He had lived it. He knew and could talk from first-hand experience about the figures and forces that shaped postwar Hoosier education.

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Jumping to conclusions on school safety

It was 10 years ago when a disturbed young man shot and killed 26 people, including 20 young children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. We should never stop mourning. And we should never stop trying to prevent similar tragedies.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusions about what to do. Time after time, politicians respond with knee-jerk solutions: beefing up security, installing metal detectors, arming teachers and putting more police in schools. An entire industry has developed around keeping schools safe, but there’s little agreement about what works. Paradoxically, more security may make schools seem less safe.

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ISTA agenda focuses on teacher shortage

Indiana is facing a teacher and school employee shortage that has become unsustainable, and the Indiana General Assembly should act now to address it, the Indiana State Teachers Association says.

“Legislators must face this challenge head on,” ISTA President Keith Gambill said Tuesday. “They have a tremendous opportunity in front of them to work with educators and parents to find long-term, viable solutions that will help attract and retain quality educators to ensure our students succeed.”

ISTA President Keith Gambill speaks at a news conference in Indianapolis.

Speaking at a news conference at ISTA offices in Indianapolis, Gambill outlined the union’s agenda for the 2023 session, in which legislators will adopt a two-year state budget. It calls for:

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Taxation without representation?

There’s a tradition in Indiana that, if we pay for a government service through property taxes, we can use our votes to influence how the money is spent. We elect city, county, town and township officials. We elect school boards. We elect the people who appoint library and fire district boards.

If we don’t like the way our taxes are being spent, we can vote for different officials. We can run for office, try to get elected, and change how the institutions are run.

But look for the Indiana General Assembly to scrap that idea in its 2023 session, which begins in January. Lawmakers may require that our property taxes help pay for privately operated charter schools.

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Indiana enrollment holds steady

Indiana K-12 enrollment held steady in this third school year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to recent data from the Indiana Department of Education. Some 1,124,109 students were attending public, charter and private schools as of the department’s “count day” in September. The figures were released last week.

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