[r72] A Clere view of the Statehouse: Education issues deserve calm debate (2/17/2011)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Start Date: 2/17/2011 All Day
End Date: 2/17/2011
Public education isn't failing.

Several major education bills are working their way through the legislative process, and there is a lot of misinformation, including the notion that legislators think public education is failing. I do not believe public schools are failing, and I do not know any legislator who does.

There is a wide range of opinion over what should be done to improve education. The bills under consideration are intended to provide options for families and to improve public education by increasing competition and accountability.

It is understandable that teachers may feel as though they are under attack, and it's important to acknowledge that teachers are not the problem. Most teachers are good teachers, some are not. Many are excellent. Proposed legislation would reward outstanding performers and make it easier to deal with underperformers.

In many places, traditional public schools are performing well. In other places, there is a lot of room for improvement.

A bill that would expand charter schools passed the House last week. There's a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation about charter schools, and, as with other issues, the level of rhetoric isn't helping. On Tuesday, the day the bill passed, the Indiana State Teachers Association - the teachers union - held a rally at the Statehouse.

According to the ISTA, more than 1,000 teachers attended the rally. Based on the noise, I would have estimated the size of the crowd at several times that number. Educators are professionals and deserve to be treated as professionals. What I witnessed last week was not professional and did not reflect the high level of professionalism exhibited by most of the teachers I know. At times, it was difficult to hear over the shouting.

The charter bill passed 59-37. Moments later, a man shouted from the public gallery overlooking the House floor, "Liar!" His outburst was directed at House Speaker Brian Bosma. This is the environment in which many of us are trying to talk calmly and respectfully. Needless to say, it isn't easy.

I'm willing to give the man the benefit of the doubt. Tensions were high, and it had been a long day for the teachers, many of whom had traveled long distances. Maybe he misunderstood what the charter school legislation is all about. He wouldn't be the only one.

A posting on the ISTA's website asserted that the charter legislation, House Bill 1002, "would remove funds from public schools to be given to private institutions that not everyone would be allowed to attend."

That's simply untrue. Charter schools are tuition-free public schools open to all students.

The same posting went on to say that another initiative, House Bill 1003, "would reduce teacher pay in addition to remove any rights teachers have to negotiate their teaching contracts or have any voice at all in issues regarding education." HB 1003 deals with scholarships - also called vouchers - for disadvantaged children to attend private school. It has nothing to do with the issues mentioned.

The posting continued with a doomsday prediction: "If these bills are passed, Hoosier public education will decay. The state will not be able to keep its good teachers for no one will want to continue to teach under such adverse conditions. Indiana will not be able to attract new teachers that would make a difference to future generations for it will be better to get a degree, then go practice in a state where educators are more appreciated and recompensed accordingly."

The author may have valid concerns, but she wasn't even talking about the right bills, and the alarmist predictions don't help anything.

In Indiana, more than 22,000 students attend 60 tuition-free, public charter schools, according to the Indiana Public Charter School Association. "Public charter schools provide choice in education to parents. They are free to be creative and innovative in their approach, but are held to strict accountability standards for student achievement." For more information, visit the association's website at www.incharters.org. The ISTA's website is www.ista-in.org. If you do not have Internet access and would like more information from both sides of the debate, contact my office.

After the rally, I heard there was at least one teacher from Southern Indiana who said she had tried to schedule an appointment with me and that I refused to meet. Prior to the day of the rally, I did not receive any request for a meeting. Starting around 3 p.m., while we were in session, the House doorkeeper started bringing me notes from teachers who were in the hallway outside the chamber. We were voting every few minutes. I wanted to step out in the hall, but it was too chaotic and I didn't want to miss a vote.

Too few people from Southern Indiana visit the Statehouse, and I welcome visitors from home. I always try to find a way to meet with folks, even if they show up unannounced. Of course, notice is always helpful and appreciated.

We're not even at the halfway point of the legislative session, and education reform is a work in progress. I would welcome an opportunity to meet locally with anyone who wants to talk about education. During last year's legislative session, I held two open forums on education. The union ordered teachers to stay away. I have no interest in butting heads with the union. My only interest is what's good for children, and I will gladly listen to anyone who shares that interest.