Quick takes on the 2017 legislative session

A session of the Indiana General Assembly is kind of like a tornado. When it’s over, you crawl out of your shelter, look around and assess the damage.

Lawmakers finished their business and left the Statehouse on Saturday morning. Here’s a quick look at some of the wreckage they left on the education front.

School funding

The most important thing the legislature does for education is to allocate funding for schools. Education funding is the lion’s share of the state budget, but you can’t say lawmakers were very generous.

On average, per-pupil funding will increase by only 1.1 percent in 2017-18 and 1.3 percent in 2018-19. That’s not good enough. School funding in Indiana has never caught up to what it was before the Great Recession, and private school vouchers account for an ever-growing slice of the school funding pie.

The funding formula continues a recent trend of directing bigger funding increases to growing suburban schools and less money to urban and rural schools. Funding is down a lot for the complexity index, the part of the formula that boosts support for schools serving more poor children.

Appointed superintendent

Lawmakers delivered on a priority for Gov. Eric Holcomb: making superintendent of public instruction an appointed rather than an elected position. In a compromise between the House and Senate, the new system won’t take effect until 2025 and the appointed superintendent must be an Indiana resident.

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Pre-K expansion still faces hurdles

An Indiana University research center released a detailed report last week recommending Indiana expand its pre-kindergarten pilot program and explaining how 10 others states have done just that. But on the same day, a state Senate committee slashed funding for pre-K expansion to almost nothing.

And so it goes here in the 201st year of Indiana statehood. We are determined to pinch pennies as tightly as we can, even if it means depriving our youngest citizens of the education they deserve.

The report, from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at IU, was produced for the State Board of Education. It describes Indiana’s nascent pre-K program – which serves about 1,600 4-year-olds in five of the state’s 92 counties – and contrasts it with programs in other states that started small and grew.

The programs vary in scope, student eligibility and academic requirements. Not surprisingly, states that spend the most money serve the most students. Georgia, for example, provides pre-K in 100 percent of its school districts. Massachusetts, which got a later start, serves 25 percent of districts. Other states examined are Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Indiana’s pilot pre-K program, On My Way Pre-K, is available only in Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh counties. It was created in 2014 and spends $10 million per year.

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Latest voucher gimmick: Education Savings Accounts

Give Indiana Republican legislators points for resourcefulness. They keep finding new ways to undermine public schools by expanding the state’s school voucher program. The latest, and arguably the most egregious, is the creation of Education Savings Accounts, state-funded accounts to pay for private schooling and other expenses.

Senate Bill 534, scheduled to be considered today by the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, would create ESAs for the families of special-needs students who choose not to attend public school and don’t receive a private-school voucher.

The state would fund the ESAs with money that would otherwise go to the public schools where the students would be eligible to enroll — typically about $6,000 per student but potentially quite a bit more for some special-needs students. Then the students’ families could decide where to spend the money: private school tuition, tutoring, online courses, and other services from providers approved by the State Board of Education.

SB 534 would cost the state between $144 million and $206 million a year, according to a fiscal impact statement from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. This is at a time when legislators are arguing about whether Indiana can afford $10 million to expand a popular  pre-kindergarten program.

Unlike with Indiana’s existing voucher program, there’s no income requirement for qualifying for the proposed Education Savings Accounts. So if Joe Billionaire has a special-needs child and wants to send the child to a private school, we the taxpayers would providing funding.

As Vic Smith of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education writes, the legislation is right out of the late economist Milton Friedman’s plan “to take public schools out of our society and leave education to a marketplace of private schools, all funded by the taxpayers but without government oversight.”

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Pre-K and vouchers: not a good combination

Excuse the language, but Indiana House Republicans served up a classic shit sandwich with House Bill 1004, their legislation to expand Indiana’s pre-kindergarten pilot program. Stuffed inside the bill is language that would provide yet another route for students to become eligible for the state’s school voucher program.

Under the legislation, students who participate in the pre-K program for low-income families would become eligible for a voucher to help pay private school tuition. They would stay eligible as long as their family income continued to meet the program’s requirements.

The House Education Committee approved the bill last week on a party-line vote, sending it to the full House. The lead author is Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, who chairs the education panel.

Seen as pure politics, HB 1004 of a slick move. Democrats have pushed for years to expand state support for pre-K. But as backers of public schools, they oppose vouchers. They’re in the awkward position of having to vote against one of their long-time priorities.

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Zombie teacher-pay bill rises from the dead

Somebody really wants the Indiana legislature to pass a law that will let school superintendents give raises to favored teachers outside the bounds of union-negotiated contracts. Somebody with clout. Otherwise the supplemental-pay measure would have died last week when the state Senate, responding to overwhelming opposition from teachers and their supporters, refused to pass it.

But it didn’t. House leaders kept the idea alive Monday when they breathed new life into Senate Bill 10, which lawmakers had previously said wasn’t going to become law.

The controversial Republican-sponsored legislation lives again.

Both chambers had approved versions of the same bill – House Bill 1004 and Senate Bill 10 – which would, among other things, let superintendents award higher salaries to certain teachers. The votes were close: 57-42 in the House and 26-24 in the Senate (where Republicans have a 39-11 majority).

The extra-pay language in the Senate bill is actually worse, in the eyes of teachers’ unions, which strongly oppose both. It would let superintendents award higher pay “to attract or retain a teacher as needed” while the House bill would allow extra pay only to hire for a position “that is difficult to fill.”

Also, the House bill would require the superintendent to present justification for additional pay to the school board in a public meeting. The Senate bill would let that happen behind closed doors.

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Anti-Ritz legislation is overkill

The way Indiana legislators’ are trying to fix the state’s education governance system calls to mind what an American officer reportedly said during the Vietnam War: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

The lawmakers say they want to save the system from the dysfunction that’s come with feuding between Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and the other 10 State Board of Education members, all appointed by Republican governors.

But their approach is to blow up a structure that has served Indiana well for many years, even when the elected superintendent and governor were from different parties.

Their main weapon is House Bill 1486, approved last week on a party-line vote by the House Education Committee. It transfers significant elements of education authority from the Department of Education, headed by Ritz, to the State Board of Education.

The bill authorizes the board to hire an executive director and staff and to employ outside contractors. And the board is going to need a lot of help if it takes on all the duties described in the bill. They include new responsibility for turnaround schools, teacher evaluation, standardized tests, state learning standards and audits of federal and state education programs. Continue reading

A lousy election for Indiana Democrats, public education

Public schools lost some loyal advocates in the Indiana legislature last week with the defeat of Democratic Sen. Tim Skinner and Reps. Shelli VanDenburgh and Mara Candelaria Reardon.

Skinner, a former school teacher from Terre Haute, may have been the most outspoken supporter of public schools in the General Assembly. He lost his bid for a fourth term by more than 1,000 votes to Republican Jon Ford, a business owner.

Tim Skinner

Tim Skinner

VanDenburgh, from Crown Point, and Reardon, from Munster, were part of a northwestern Indiana Democratic delegation that advocated reliably in the House for public schools. VanDenburgh lost a close contest to Julie Olthoff, a Merrillville ad agency owner. Reardon’s narrow loss to Munster attorney Bill Fine means there is now only one Hispanic legislator in a state that is over 6 percent Hispanic. (That’s Rep. Christina Hale, an Indianapolis Democrat who is part Cuban-American).

Republicans expanded their super majorities in both the House and Senate with the election. They now control the House, 71-29, and the Senate, 40-10. On partisan issues – and there are a lot of them in education – Democrats will do well to get a word in edgewise.

Senate Republicans put more than $100,000 into Ford’s campaign. Skinner got some help from the Indiana State Teachers Association but it was too little, too late.

Olthoff’s campaign against VanDenburgh picked up nearly $75,000 in late, large contributions as her supporters apparently realized she could win. About half came from the House Republican campaign committee and the rest from the school-voucher advocacy group Hoosiers for Quality Education.

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