The conversation on education went on last Saturday, but important stakeholders were told to stay away.
Six people attended the first of two informal forums on education. Three were teachers, each from a different Christian school. One was my wife, another was a friend and the third I was pleased to meet for the first time.
Two retired educators from the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corporation were there. I had one of them as a teacher, and the other was an administrator when I was in school. I continued to learn from them on Saturday, and I very much appreciated their attendance.
The sixth person was the president of the New Albany-Floyd County Education Association - the local teachers union - and he was the reason many others weren't there. He acknowledged that he had instructed Floyd County public school teachers not to attend.
So he spoke for them. He said teachers don't have time to read bills or otherwise concern themselves with what's happening in Indianapolis. Apparently, he doesn't either. He conceded that he hadn't actually read the education bills he was supporting or opposing - only summaries.
The forum was scheduled to last two hours. We ended up talking for three, and we still just scratched the surface of many issues. It was a good conversation. We didn't agree on everything, but I certainly learned a lot.
There are two competing proposals for making up a $300 million reduction in statewide K-12 education funding.
House Bill 1367 was put forth by the union. It would give schools a limited ability to use their capital projects fund to pay operating costs, including salaries. The bill also would require schools to reduce overhead - something they're already doing on their own.
HB 1367 would suspend two very modest reform initiatives the union opposes - a virtual charter school pilot program and a school scholarship tax credit designed to give poor kids a chance to attend private school. Together the two programs could cost the state an amount equal to about 1 percent of the reduction in school funding. In addition, HB 1367 would suspend important student testing programs, including PSAT testing and ACT/SAT preparation.
Senate Bill 309 offers an alternative that would give schools more flexibility in funding - and access to more money - without suspending the reform initiatives or testing programs. It passed the Senate with bipartisan support and was scheduled for a hearing yesterday in the House Education Committee, of which I am a member.
In return for a year of flexibility in moving money among funds, schools would have to agree not to increase pay for a year. At the forum, the local union president made it clear teachers would not accept the tradeoff, even though it would prevent layoffs and the larger class sizes that would result from layoffs.
Having listened to teachers prior to the forum, I already was working on language to protect teachers who complete a master's degree or 30 hours of graduate study beyond a master's, in both cases qualifying to move to a higher pay scale. Having invested their own money to further their education, they still should move to the higher scale, even if a general pay freeze is in effect. That language will be introduced as early as today.
I'm also working on several other improvements, some of which came out of the forum.
Support for public education - and for education reform - is bipartisan, as a Feb. 1 U.S. Department of Education press release illustrates.
"President Obama's 2011 education budget signals a bold new direction for federal K-12 education policy with more competitive funding, more flexibility and a focus on the reforms likely to have the greatest impact on student success," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
"This budget sends a very clear signal to the country that this president is serious about education," Duncan said. "There are some very innovative proposals in this budget that come from across America. We want to advance reform on a bipartisan basis."
Some of those innovative proposals are coming from Indiana Republicans and have the support of the nation's top Democrat. As Duncan put it, "competition and incentives drive reform." Amen.
In a statement the day after Obama's state of the union address, Duncan underscored the urgency of education reform:
"We can't wait to make these reforms. Right now, 25 percent of our students fail to graduate high school, and as many as 60 percent of college freshmen need remedial education. Millions of jobs are unfilled for lack of qualified applicants. The President and I know that we need to educate our way to a better economy. I am honored to be working with you to make it happen."
Education reform will not happen without a highly qualified teacher in every classroom. And we cannot expect to attract and retain such top talent unless we are willing to pay for it. As the economy recovers, I will continue to fight for excellent pay for excellent teachers.
In the meantime, we are experiencing unprecedented economic challenges, and teacher pay is not immune. Our conversation about education must be about much more than pay alone. Everything is on the table.
The conversation will continue from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday at Destinations Booksellers, 604 E. Spring St., New Albany. I hope the teachers union will allow its members to think and speak for themselves.
Anyone who feels intimidated to attend may e-mail me in confidence. My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. I will not reveal your identity, but I will listen.