What's best for kids?
That's the first and most important question we should be asking as we debate education issues. Some, however, want to start with what's best for adults, trying to convince us that benefits for children will follow.
Of all the weighty issues before the Indiana General Assembly, education should be the furthest removed from politics. Instead, it's among the most political.
That's certainly the case with House Bill 1367, which passed the House of Representatives last week along party lines. HB 1367 is a political bill, introduced outside the usual process and rammed through before a key deadline.
The Senate is likely to rewrite HB 1367. But since it passed the House, it's now a bargaining chip. According to House rules, regardless of what happens to it in the Senate, the bill's original language - or any part of it - can be inserted into another bill later in the process.
As we debated HB 1367, the hall outside the chamber was filled with union members, who clapped and shouted their support for the bill.
The teachers union goes by several names. The New Albany-Floyd County Education Association is part of the Indiana State Teachers Association, which in turn is part of the National Education Association. They have different names, but a common agenda.
Retiring NEA General Counsel Bob Chanin summed up that agenda last year in a speech to the union's national assembly:
"And that brings me to my final and most important point, which is why, at least in my opinion, NEA and its affiliates are such effective advocates. Despite what some among us would like to believe, it is not because of our creative ideas. It is not because of the merit of our positions. It is not because we care about children. And it is not because we have a vision of a great public school for every child.
"NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power, and we have power because there are more than 3.2 million people who are willing to pay us hundreds of millions of dollars in dues each year because they believe that we are the unions that can most effectively represent them - the unions that can protect their rights and advance their interests as education employees.
"This is not to say that the concern of NEA and its affiliates with closing achievement gaps, reducing dropout rates, improving teacher quality and the like are unimportant or inappropriate. To the contrary, these are the goals that guide the work we do. But they need not and must not be achieved at the expense of due process, employee rights and collective bargaining. That simply is too high a price to pay.
"When all is said and done, NEA and its affiliates must never lose sight of the fact that they are unions, and what unions do first and foremost is represent their members. If we do that and if we do it well, the rest will fall into place. NEA and its affiliates will remain powerful, and that power will in turn enable us to achieve our vision of a great public school for every child."
Chanin's speech is available on YouTube.
After the vote on HB 1367, I went across the street to an ISTA luncheon, where I encountered union representatives from Floyd and other Southern Indiana counties. Talking points in hand, their first question was, "Did you vote for 1367?" When I said no, they immediately labeled me as anti-teacher.
After cutting everything else first, Gov. Mitch Daniels recently announced reductions to K-12 education. I support a plan that would restore funding. But the union opposes that plan, and it wasn't given a chance in the House.
How does the union's influence play out in Indiana?
In the 2008 election cycle, the union contributed more than $1 million to Democrats running for the Indiana House. During the same period, the union contributed $48,300 to Republicans. These figures are based on the secretary of state's campaign finance database, which is available online.
Two sentences from the Jan. 13, 2009, minutes of the New Albany-Floyd County Education Association speak volumes about the cynical, polarizing way in which the union approaches the political process:
"If you are of the same political affiliation as Ed Clere, we NEED you! Many of the representatives will CHECK to see if a person is registered as their party before they will seriously listen to the person."
I don't check. Never have. Never will. I represent Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and people of other political affiliations or no political affiliation.
I was elected in November 2008. At the time of the union meeting, I had been in office only two months and had just completed the first week of my first legislative session. I hadn't voted on anything.
Before the session is out - while legislation is still under consideration - I want to talk directly with teachers and other educators.
I will be at Destinations Booksellers from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday and the same time the following Saturday, Feb. 20. I want to talk directly with teachers, administrators, other school employees and anyone else in our community who is concerned about education. Destinations is at 604 E. Spring St. in New Albany. The bookstore's café sells breakfast.
I won't have any talking points. I'll be there to listen and learn. That's what I've always done when teachers are in the room.