State Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan is as moderate a voice on education issues as you’ll find among Indiana House Democrats. An organizer of the new group Indiana Democrats for Education Reform, she is co-author of a bill to expand charter schools and favors parts of the Daniels-Bennett education agenda.
But she’s with her Democratic colleagues at the Comfort Suites hotel in Urbana, Ill., helping put the brakes on what caucus leaders call a “radical agenda” to dismantle public education, drive down wages, and roll back workers’ rights.
Sullivan might not use the same rhetoric. But she said the onslaught of proposed changes in how schools operate, coupled with the Republican majority’s refusal to compromise, forced Democrats to take dramatic action to call attention to the issues.
“If at least more people pay attention to what’s happening, I think that’s a worthy goal in itself,” Sullivan, D-Indianapolis, told School Matters.
The straw that broke the camel’s back, she said, was the right-to-work bill that Republicans pushed through the House Labor Committee Monday. Democrats left town the next day.
Let’s just say it’s a mystery why House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, advanced the right-to-work bill, even though Gov. Mitch Daniels warned against doing so. Bosma had to know Democrats would walk out over the bill, but sometimes people lose perspective in a legislative session. Or maybe a House Republican went to the recent Conservative Political Action Committee conference and heard an Americans for Prosperity staffer insist it’s time to “take the unions out at the knees.”
Even without right-to-work, however, tension had been building at the Statehouse over labor and education issues, including the school reforms that Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett are championing.
“There’s been an attitude on some of these bills of, ‘It’s our way or the highway,’” Rep. Peggy Welch, another moderate Democrat, told the Bloomington Herald-Times last week from Urbana. “We had to choose the highway to make sure our voice was heard.”
Although Sullivan is the No. 2 author of the charter-schools bill, Republicans rejected two moderating amendments that she offered on the House floor. One would have removed language that lets any private college sponsor a charter school; the other would have deleted the “parent trigger” provision that lets 51 percent of parents convert any public school to a charter school.
Sullivan supports charter schools but opposes voucher programs, including House Bill 1003, which would provide taxpayer subsidies to middle-income families who transfer their children from public to private schools. “I just don’t think it’s good public policy,” she said. “My first duty is to make sure we have a really good system of public schools in the state.”
She thinks there is merit in proposals to change the way teachers are evaluated and compensated. But she understands that it requires a “leap of faith” for teachers to think that yet-to-be-designed systems of evaluation and merit pay will be fair.
Sullivan said she hopes the Democratic walkout, if nothing else, can slow the runaway legislative train and give the public a chance to understand what’s at stake. “I’m very interesting in making sure the right voices are heard,” she said. “These are sweeping changes.”