Statehouse to shake up education policy

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The Indiana General Assembly has voted on, and seeks to vote on, several bills that will affect Hoosier children and Indiana’s education policy.

The Indiana State House and the Senate have passed two separate and controversial bills to allow the State Board of Education to choose its own chairperson rather than have the Superintendent of Public Instruction chair the board. The superintendent has been automatically made chair of the board since 1913, according to the SBOE website.

The House bill simply gives the board the power to select its own chair from among the members. However, the Senate bill goes much further, revamping the process of appointing the board as a whole. Currently, the governor appoints all  members of the board other than the superintendent. The Senate version would have Indiana’s chief executive share the power of appointment with the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. The bill also reduces the size of the board from 11 members to nine. For this revamped board, the threshold for bipartisanship is lowered, with only two opposing party members required, instead of the current four.

Neither bill has passed both houses  yet. Each bill is currently being considered by the opposite house and each house will make a decision to adopt one of the bills or to make a compromise later in the legislative session.

Assistant Professor of History and Political Science Laura Merrifield Albright said one explanation why the general assembly wants to revamp the SBOE is probably to ease gridlock in the board.

Albright said many state-level education positions have appointed leaders and there could be some debate about whether it would be helpful to let the board choose its own chair. However, she said this does not appear to be the reason why the general assembly is acting on this legislation in the middle of Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz’s term. She said if the general assembly had waited to rework the board before the next superintendent election, it would have looked more politically neutral.

“By doing it at this point of the legislative session, it is very clearly a political maneuver,” Albright said. “They [members of the general assembly] can’t say that they dislike that [the chairship] is an elected position. It is very clear that they dislike who is in that position because she [Ritz] is a member of a different party.”

Regardless of partisanship, Albright said the public and politicians should consider the long-term effects of changing policy and taking some of the power of the SBOE out of the hands of the people.

Education policy shifts

According to the Indiana Code, the SBOE is responsible for, but not limited in scope to, the following duties: distributing funds to schools in Indiana, establishing accreditation standards for schools in Indiana, establishing standards for teacher licensing, establishing a rating system for schools and other duties.

Assistant Professor and Faculty Development Facilitator Susan Blackwell has been in the education field since she became a teacher in 1970. Blackwell worked in the State Department of Education in the 1990s and is an education policy activist. She said that the SBOE has changed focus over the years from a rating system that was designed to help schools rather than punish them. The system used under Superintendent of Public Instruction H. Dean Evans, she said, evaluated performance and was used as a tool to get the school back on track, rather than shut it down or force it to be privatized.

Blackwell said that the SBOE is now so caught up in holding schools accountable in incremental ways that they do not look at the big issues in Indiana education, such as teacher retention and student success.

“We are caught up, right now, in really bad ideas for education, and it doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican,” Blackwell said. “Some of the ideas coming out of the federal Department of Education aren’t very good either. There’s a lot of competition, there’s a lot of comparing schools. This is all part of a business model that just doesn’t make any sense.”

Blackwell thinks there needs to be more consistent and long-term policy for future teachers and for the good of Hoosier children. She said that one election can mean a major shift in policy because most Indiana education policymakers are chosen by elected officials. She believes Indiana needs a strategy for recruitment to fight the teaching shortage, to help increase wages for teachers, to get parents involved and to incentivize schools to improve.

“Indiana is not taking care of our children,” she said. “What is happening in education is endemic to what is happening elsewhere. I think legislators care, they just have their priorities mixed up.”

Blackwell said Indiana appears to be moving to a two-tiered school system in Indiana—public schooling and charter schooling. She does not buy into the idea that charter schools are the cure-all for Indiana schools.

The House has proposed an education budget that would shift funding from urban school districts such as Indianapolis Public Schools to suburban and rural districts. Although the budget boosts school funding by $469 million, the proposed budget would reduce the IPS budget by $18 million, according to the Indianapolis Star. The budget also includes a possible per pupil grant for charter schools of $1,500 and removes the $4,800 per pupil cap on school vouchers, according to the Indianapolis Star.

“The [proposed] budget is set up in such a way to increase the number of vouchers and increase the amount of money going to charter schools,” Blackwell said. “There is this belief that charter schools are better and there’s not any research. Charter schools are better at getting kids graduated and involving parents than public schools, but they are no better than public schools in achievement.”

The future of education policy

Blackwell said that among other issues in education policy, many teachers are upset about Ritz is likely being unseated as chairwoman because they elected her to fill the role. Blackwell said teachers are active on Facebook and have been showing their support for her in statehouse protests.

Albright said that this type of policy shift invites all Hoosiers to become more informed and involved in the political process. She noted that Indiana has a consistently low voter turnout rate, but that this type of policy shift might give some Hoosiers a reason to go out and vote.

“This signifies to me that voters need to pay more attention, to contact their legislators, [to] become more politically involved,” Albright said. “These kinds of decisions have huge implications for us. You don’t have to be a kid in public schools or have a kid in public schools to see this impacting the community.”

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