Some say reforms fail students
However, state's top education official says reforms about rewarding best teachers, allowing administrators to do their jobs and providing parents choices
March 23, 2011This year's session of the Indiana General Assembly has been one of the most eventful, with House Democrats now a month into a walkout that began with frustration with a Republican bill that would have limited collective bargaining rights of unions and has since expanded to include other proposed legislation, including education reforms.
Those proposed reforms have many Democrat lawmakers, as well as teacher unions, frustrated, with some saying the proposed bills authored by House Republicans are really an effort to break the Indiana State Teachers Association.
Reforms that have been proposed include:
•Expanding charter schools while increasing their accountability;
•Creating an income-based school voucher program;
•Awarding tenure to teachers based on performance instead of seniority; and
•Giving schools a public letter grade based on years of data.
Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Tony Bennett, a Republican, during an interview earlier this month following a ceremony at English Elementary School to honor it for being named a federal No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon School, said the proposed reforms are about improving education in the state.
"Many of the structures that we're talking about changing are structures that were in place between 40 and 70 years ago, and we haven't changed those structures," he said. "Education has tried to change, but, maybe due to some of those structures, it hasn't been able to.
"This guy right here," Bennett said while pointing to Crawford County Community School Corp. Superintendent Dr. Mark Eastridge, "in my opinion, if we gave him the same freedom that we gave charter schools and private schools, I'm going to promise you right now, Crawford County would be a major educational attraction because of the leadership and the dedication of the teachers. What we want to do is unshackle the hands of great superintendents like Mark Eastridge."
Eric Belcher, co-president of the Crawford County Classroom Teachers Association, noted there is evidence that questions the effectiveness of charter schools in Indiana.
Recent academic successes at Crawford County — three of its five elementary schools have received the federal Blue Ribbon award, Milltown Elementary School was named a Four Star school by the state and the corporation recently became just the 26th in Indiana to earn districtwide accreditation — suggest that not all public schools in Indiana are falling behind. However, not all educators believe that Bennett and others promoting the proposed reforms fully understand that good things are happening in Indiana schools, negating the need for such drastic reforms.
"They don't understand because they don't want to understand," Belcher said.
State Sen. Richard Young, D-Milltown, admitted there are public schools in Indiana that are failing, but noted there are also successful ones that should be used as models in improving the low-performing schools. He is among those who believes Bennett fails to see that.
"Dr. Bennett was elected superintendent of public instruction, but of all the people I know who have worked with him in the past, most have very little respect for Dr. Bennett," he said.
Young said the state constitution calls for each Indiana child to be given a free, quality education, and vouchers and charter schools would hinder that by diverting money from traditional public education.
"When you do charter schools, generally, you're setting up some sort of special school that not everyone is going to," he said. "And vouchers, you're taking money that would be going to some sort of private school."
Young noted that he worked with former Republican Senate Leader Robert Garton years ago on legislation to allow Indiana's first charter schools but on a small scale. With more than 60 now, they expanded beyond what he had hoped, he said.
"There's nothing wrong with trying different ideas and doing some experimentation, but when you do that, you need to do it like any other experiment and do it in a controlled environment," Young said.
Eastridge said he doesn't believe legislation creating a school voucher program and expanding charter schools would have any effect on Crawford County, explaining the rural county likely wouldn't be attractive for a sponsor wanting to start a charter school. In addition, he said, "We think we're doing an OK job."
Bennett agreed, saying: "What are the chances of a private school hurting a Blue Ribbon school? What are the chances of someone opening a charter school in Crawford County when you have three Blue Ribbon schools in the corporation and you have a school corporation that's on the rise? The market place wouldn't allow it. I mean, a smart guy is going to say, 'Why would I go there?' The problem is, not all school corporations are like this."
Eastridge said school officials cannot control what the state legislature does and, therefore, must focus on what they can: providing the best staff, curriculum and facilities to continually improve student achievement.
State officials, he said, "have a tendency to speak in generalities" when discussing Indiana's schools. That is just human nature, he explained, pointing to a 2010 Phi Delta Kappa survey that indicated that people view their local schools in a much more favorable light than they do schools outside of their communities.
Young said teachers unfairly are under attack.
"Teachers can't do everything," he said. "Teachers are given a product, and we're told that a lot of that product has been formed by the time the child is 3 years old."
Belcher agreed, saying the key to improving schools is to continue "working hard. But just as Bob Knight, Coach K, etc. can't win the title every year, schools' test scores change because of the 'team' taking them. Obviously, brighter and more gifted students equal better test scores."
Young said reforms aimed at making it more difficult for teachers to earn tenure are misguided. Teachers can have their employment terminated now — maybe not as easily as at-will employees — but there is a process by which they are evaluated and, if needed, can be dismissed, he said.
"I don't think we need to get rid of tenure. … People should have some job security," he said.
He said taking money from traditional public schools to fund vouchers and charter schools "ignores the problem." Instead of shuttling money away from public education, more is needed to fund the programs that would actually make a difference, he said.
Proponents of the suggested reforms, however, note that 55 percent of the state's general fund goes toward education, one of the highest rates in the nation.
Asked via e-mail if he believes the reforms are really an effort to bust the Indiana State Teachers Association, Belcher wrote: "ABSOLUTELY!!!!"
Bennett, however, denied that, pointing to his own history with unions.
"First, my dad is a union electrician. If you look back in my past, in 1990-91, I belonged to the Ohio Education Association. In 1991-92, I belonged to the Indiana State Teachers Association. If this was about busting unions, we would try to repeal collective bargaining," he said. "I'm not about busting unions, but what I am saying is (the superintendent) should be in charge of running the school. He shouldn't have to ask permission every time he turns around. He shouldn't be shackled with a collective bargaining agreement that keeps him from being able to do the things he needs and the thing that he's held accountable for by the state and by his school board. So, it's not about that.
"As a matter of fact, more than anything, if you look at our proposal, it's about recognizing and rewarding great teachers, it's about giving this guy (pointing to Eastridge) the opportunity to do his great work, and, you know what, it's about allowing folks to pursue opportunities for their kids that best meet their needs. So, this has nothing to do with anyone's desire to bust the union. Now, in many instances, if you don't come to the table with a plan, sometimes you break yourself."
Bennett said he has spoken about the proposed reforms with "over 7,000 teachers easily" in a variety of public forums since August and their response has been positive.
"Do you know what teachers will say? Great teachers are going to say, 'I may not philosophically agree with all of this, but I understand the sense of it.' Now, that is not the same message you get through the voice of the union leadership," he said. "In what's happened in many parts of this legislative agenda is that great teachers have come to those forums and given us ideas that have helped shape that legislation, and that, too, is unlike their union leadership."
Belcher, however, said Bennett hasn't appeared receptive to suggestions offered by the ISTA.
Asked how much input Bennett has sought from the ISTA and other professional education groups, Belcher answered: "Very little that he is going to use, I am afraid of."