[r72] A Clere view of the Statehouse: Saving teachers would protect students (4/26/2010)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Start Date: 4/26/2010 All Day
End Date: 4/26/2010

The topics of conversation were as diverse as the crowd at a second informal forum on education.

It's an important and timely subject. With the legislature likely to adjourn by the end of next week, we have precious little time left to take action to prevent teacher layoffs and larger class sizes.

Education is one of several difficult subjects before the legislature in the waning days of the session. As with other tough issues, doing nothing may be easier, but we owe it to Hoosiers to do something.

We have the ability to prevent teacher layoffs and larger class sizes, but only if we work together. Education is too important to be controlled by any single special-interest group. It's time to come together to protect children. What we do - or fail to do - will have an impact on their future and Indiana's future.

More than two dozen people attended the forum last Saturday at Destinations Booksellers in New Albany. A forum the previous Saturday drew six. I was pleased with the turnout and even more pleased that so many different perspectives were represented.

The group included a public school principal, active and retired teachers from both public and private schools, parents and others concerned about education. Most Floyd County teachers stayed away because of pressure from the local teachers union, whose president was there but silent the whole time. He recorded the two-hour discussion; I hope he will play it for his members so they can hear what they missed.

One of the public school teachers was from Community Montessori School in New Albany, Floyd County's only charter school. One of the parents was an advocate for virtual charter schools.

The conversation was calm, respectful and informed. We talked about math and science education, teacher accountability, administration, reading standards, testing, attracting and retaining teachers, nontraditional pathways to teaching and other topics.

Not everyone wants to talk calmly. Some people are more interested in demagoguery than dialogue.

One local middle school teacher recently e-mailed me to ask, "Who's the Fascist bastard who came up with SB 309?" That one sentence was his entire message. Senate Bill 309 is one of the education bills under consideration. I responded by inviting him to attend the forum at the bookstore.

He replied to my invitation with a threat: "Destinations has been boycotted and believe me we will have dialogue. I am preparing a public protest. As soon as things are in order you will be the first to know!"

How does that serve the interests of children?

Thankfully, his angry rhetoric is not representative of most teachers. In contrast to his terse, inflammatory e-mails, I have received a number of thoughtful messages from teachers who want to discuss the issues. We don't necessarily agree on everything, but at least we're talking.

Let's hope the legislature will do the same thing before it's too late.

As of the end of last week, there were two live bills that seek to address a $300 million reduction in K-12 education funding. SB 309 is one. The other is House Bill 1367, which is in the Senate. SB 309 is in the House. It was scheduled for further action yesterday in the House Education Committee, of which I am a member. We met on it twice last week.

SB 309 would allow schools to transfer money among funds that are normally restricted. It passed the Senate with bipartisan support. As written when it came to the House, SB 309 would have required schools to agree to freeze all employee pay for one year in exchange for the funding flexibility. The other Republican members of the House Education Committee and I offered an amendment that would have removed the pay freeze requirement. Instead, we proposed requiring schools that opt for the funding flexibility to agree not to lay off any teachers.

Having a highly qualified teacher in the classroom is the single most important factor in student success. Teacher layoffs would lead to larger class sizes, which would hurt students. Cuts are necessary, but teacher cuts should be a last resort, and our amendment put that position in black and white.

As soon as we called for a vote on the amendment, the committee chairman abruptly recessed the meeting so he and other Democrats could confer with lobbyists from the state teachers union. When the meeting reconvened, our amendment failed 5-5 along party lines.

There are seven Democrats and five Republicans on the House Education Committee. One of the Democrats, Rep. Dennie Oxley, has been absent all session due to an undisclosed illness. The seventh Democrat disappeared during the vote but returned to vote for alternate language - drafted on the fly, ostensibly at the behest of the union lobbyists - that watered down the prohibition against teacher layoffs. The new language said transferred money must be used "to avoid school employee layoffs and to protect instructional programs."

The alternate language was adopted 6-5 along party lines. It was too vague, and I couldn't support it. I couldn't support language that would have made it possible for schools to prioritize other spending ahead of retaining teachers. I'm still surprised the teachers union opposed language prohibiting teacher layoffs. I'm not sure what their agenda is, but we'll find out this week as the process continues.

The conversation on education is complex. Thanks to the folks who shared their morning with me the last two Saturdays, I've learned a lot, and I've developed a list of topics and questions for later.

In the meantime, the legislature is almost out of time.