[r72] A Clere view of the Statehouse: Time to knuckle down on education (8/30/2010)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Start Date: 8/30/2010 All Day
End Date: 8/30/2010

Tuesday's column was the conclusion of a three-part series on K-12 education. Two weeks ago, I reviewed the history and status of funding. Last week, I looked at how the money is distributed. Education funding is complex. Thank you for wading through it with me. I'll wrap up with some suggestions for moving forward.

An understanding of how K-12 education is funded is essential, but our conversation must be about more than dollars alone. We cannot expect better results without adequate financial support. Additional funding, however, will not by itself lead to better results. As I said two weeks ago, some reforms and initiatives may require more money. Others won't. Regardless, all funding must be accompanied by accountability.

What's best for kids? That should be our first and guiding question in any conversation about education. This is compatible with the interests of teachers.  Among the variables over which a school has control, the presence of a highly qualified teacher in the classroom is the single most important factor in student success. We will only attract and retain the best teachers if we treat them as professionals - including competitive pay and benefits - and provide adequate resources and a positive, supportive work environment.

It's time to move past the political rhetoric, finger-pointing and name-calling. Education is too important to be used as political brass knuckles. Instead, we need to knuckle down. I believe most stakeholders in K-12 education - including taxpayers, who fund it - truly want what is best for kids. We tend to agree on the destination, but we sometimes disagree over how to get there. Instead of focusing on areas of disagreement, we should be looking for areas of agreement and using them as starting points for moving forward together.

Given the current economic reality, there are only two possible ways to come up with additional funding for K-12 education in the short term: raise taxes or take it away from something else. Economically strapped Hoosiers can't afford a tax increase, and there's not much room left to cut most other programs and services.

Although there are signs of economic recovery, it is likely to be several years before state revenues return to pre-recession levels. Indiana's current two-year budget was cushioned with federal stimulus money; there's not likely to be any similar relief for the next budget. June 30 is the end of the first year of the current two-year budget cycle. In a few months, we'll have a better idea of where we stand.

In the meantime, we need to prepare to work with what we have. As a member of the House Education Committee, I have been at the table helping shape education policy over the last two years. Earlier this year, I was pleased to be able to help craft bipartisan legislation to provide funding flexibility for schools. The impact varies depending on local decisions - past and present - but the legislation is helping many schools.

I will continue to be part of the solution, and I will continue to listen and learn. In February - while the legislature was in session and education bills were under consideration - I held two open forums in New Albany on K-12 education. I learned a lot from the diverse folks who attended, and I plan to schedule additional forums. I will continue to engage all stakeholders. That includes parents, teachers and administrators, and it also includes every other member of our community, because everyone is a stakeholder in public education. Education is fundamental to advancement in every other area. Our future depends on it.

But we must do more than simply talk about the importance of education; we must act. One major focus should be making sure a larger percentage of funding goes to the classroom.

According to the State Board of Accounts, 60.6 percent of funding made it to the classroom in the 2007-2008 school year, the latest for which figures are available. Classroom spending includes pay for teachers, guidance counselors, speech pathologists, nurses, principals, superintendents and school board members. Also included are expenditures for media services, textbooks, curriculum development and instruction-related technology.

Expenses that aren't counted as classroom spending include legal services, business support, maintenance, transportation, food service, coaches, administrative technology, school construction and debt.

Each additional 1 percent of current state funding that makes it to the classroom amounts to about $60 million. Establishing a required minimum percentage for funding that must be used in the classroom would be good policy, and 65 percent is a reasonable figure. This is a good example, however, of an area in which we have to be careful to focus on agreement rather than disagreement. It would be easy to get bogged down on the percentage and lose track of the fact that there is widespread agreement over many, if not most, spending priorities.

This is an example of how we can make meaningful progress in K-12 education, even in tough economic times. Education is the most important investment we can make in our future, and we must invest wisely.