Education reform in Indiana is like a railroad track, state Superintendent Tony Bennett told a Bloomington, Ind., audience today. One rail is the competition provided by private-school vouchers and more charter schools. The other is new teacher evaluations and limits on collective bargaining.
The cross-ties? Those are accountability, as in the A-to-F letter grade system for schools and state takeover of low-performing schools.
It’s an interesting metaphor; a little clunky, maybe, but good for keeping the conversation going.
“Quite honestly, I see that railroad track as the big divide,” countered Monroe County Community schools Superintendent Judith DeMuth, who joined Bennett and others for a panel discussion sponsored by the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce.
Noting that Bennett admits to being influenced by school reforms in Florida, she said, “In Florida there are haves and have-nots, and I don’t want to see that for my children and grandchildren.”
While Bennett focused on the structural reforms that the Indiana legislature passed this year, DeMuth and Steve Kain, superintendent of Richland-Bean Blossom schools, had other priorities in mind. They said Indiana needs to provide adequate resources for public schools, which haven’t yet made up for the $300 million in funding cuts they suffered two years ago.
And they called for more state support for early childhood education. Indiana boosted funding for full-day kindergarten this year, but not enough to cover the full cost. It’s one of 10 states that don’t fund public pre-kindergarten programs, said panelist Terry Spradlin, director of education policy for the Center on Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University – who, in the spirit of transparent accountability, gave Indiana grades of C and “incomplete” for early childhood programs.
But this was mostly the Tony Bennett show, and the superintendent has in fact become quite adept at selling his views on education, even to a somewhat skeptical audience.
He batted away a question about vouchers providing tax support for religious and political extremism, insisting he’s “pretty agnostic” about what types of schools should get public support. The point, he said, is that low-income parents should have the same choice for their kids that more wealthy parents have. “Why shouldn’t they go where their needs are best met?” he said.
He hailed education reform as one of the few public issues where there seems to be some bipartisanship, with Democratic Secretary of Education Arne Duncan supporting the same charter-school and merit-pay initiatives as Bennett and other Republican state officials.
He insisted that passionate disagreement and debate is ultimately good for education. “We have reached consensus for so long that we’ve gotten complacent,” he said.
He could take an old bluegrass hymn as his theme song: “Keep your hands upon the throttle, and your eyes upon the rail.”