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Advocates: Indiana can lead U.S. in schools overhaul

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Education advocates told hundreds of cheering supporters at a Statehouse rally Wednesday that Indiana could lead the nation in overhauling schools as Republicans push a sweeping agenda that includes the expansion of charter schools and private school vouchers.

"We have the opportunity in Indiana today for this state to be leading the charge across the rest of the nation," said Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools who was featured in the documentary "Waiting for Superman." "Indiana can be at the forefront of education reform."

Rhee has become a nationwide figure on education reform, and last year she founded StudentsFirst, an organization that promotes eliminating teacher tenure and implementing merit pay to reward the most effective teachers. She was the subject of headlines recently when a USA Today investigation found some high-scoring schools touted by Rhee had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests.

Rhee said she is a Democrat who initially opposed private school vouchers, but was moved when parents came to her as chancellor looking for good public schools. Rhee said she didn't want to deny families a good education in a private school if there wasn't a slot in a good public school — one she would feel comfortable sending her own two children to.

"I was not going to look that mother and that child in the eye and say, 'Just give me five years. Take one for the team. Just wait it out until the system gets better,'" she told the cheering crowd. "That's not an answer that I would accept as a mother."

Republican leaders who control the House and Senate also spoke at the rally, and GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels sent comments by video because he was out of town. The school proposals they're pushing have sparked partisan fights and spurred a five-week walkcott by House Democrats that ended this week, but Republicans — empowered by 2010 election victories — vowed to keep fighting for the bills until they are approved.

"We will be working every single moment from now until success comes to see that 2011 is the year that kids break through and that reform breaks through for the state of Indiana," Daniels said.

Peter Groff, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said proposals in Indiana could launch the state into the top tier of states when it comes to charter school legislation.

"The nation is watching you," Groff said.

Among the proposals the General Assembly is considering this year are bills that aim to:

— Create the nation's most expansive voucher program. A controversial bill that cleared the GOP-led House in a 56-42 vote Wednesday would use taxpayer money to help parents move their children from public schools to private schools. The program is based on an income scale, with families of four making up to about $60,000 a year qualifying. The program has enrollment limits for its first two years.

— Expand charter schools. A bill pending in the Republican-ruled Senate would allow more entities to authorize charter schools and allows charter schools, which are public schools free of many state regulations, to cheaply buy unused buildings owned by traditional school corporations.

— Restrict teacher collective bargaining. A bill that has cleared the Senate would limit collective bargaining agreements between local districts and teachers' unions to only wages and wage-related benefits.

— Implement merit pay for teachers. A bill that has already passed the Senate would require student achievement to account for part of teacher evaluations, and teachers who don't do well wouldn't get automatic pay raises.

Republican lawmakers hold strong majorities in the House and Senate and the proposals are expected to pass in some form. But there's been plenty of opposition from Democrats, teachers unions and others who say the agenda will siphon money away from and erode the quality of public schools. Earlier this year, more than 1,000 teachers rallied at the Statehouse to oppose the proposals.

"Private school advocates are entitled to have their day and their say at the Statehouse, but public school parents, teachers and supporters have already made their voices known throughout this session," said Joel Hand, executive director of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education.

Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said proposal supporters are only telling one part of the story.

"The objective of self-proclaimed 'reformers' is to siphon resources away from public schools and divert them to private and religious institutions," he said in a statement.

Republicans and others who back the bills told those at the rally that it was refreshing to see a supportive crowd. Parents and students chanted "Ed Reform Rocks!" and held signs saying "Choice means hope" and "Our kids, our choice."

"It is finally so nice to have some friends here," said Russ Simnick, president of the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association.

Suzanne Close, who came to the rally with her two children from Brazil, said families who can't afford to live in a good school district or afford private school tuition shouldn't be stuck with an underperforming school.

"Parents should have the right to choose," Close said.

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  • HELP FOR SOME BUT NOT ALL!
    The money doesn't follow everyone. We are a family of four with a household income of about $70,000. We can't afford private school and the tax dollars won't follow our children to a private school because we make more than the $60,000 limit.
  • Are you surprised?
    Perhaps we rank so low because, unlike other states, we don't fully fund full-day kindergarten, and don't fund preschool education at all. To say Indiana can be on the forefront of education reform while not providing early childhood education -- heck, not even requiring children to be enrolled in school until age 7 -- is ridiculous. You want reform? Start with the basics, start with early childhood education.
  • "Our Kids, Our Choice"
    With all due respect,and I mean it with deepest sincerity, I think that anyone who is under the impression that our kids are receiving a "great" education within the public schools in the state of Indiana, is uninformed. Indidna ranks at the bottom of the nations public schools along with, Alabama and Mississippi. Only 25% of all 3rd graders in the state can read at grade level. We are 25 years behind the rest of the nation in reading & language arts. We are 35 five years behind in mathmatics. Fact: the state of Indiana lost out on valuable federal "Race To The Top" funding, not once, not twice but three times because our schools did not meet the minimum acedemic requirements that where established. Fact: our nation now ranks 29th in education amoung developed countries. Finland, Norway, Demark and Asia are on the top of of the education food-chain. Fact: The state of Indiana will not retain the businesses that we have, let alone, attract new business unless we can provide companies with a highly educated workforce. Indiana must enact sweeping education change not only for our kids but for the economic survival of our state.
    • Vouchers
      If it's really "For The Children", then everyone should be welcoming these proposals - it puts the burden squarely on the teachers and parents, not the bureaucrats. I also puts the private schools on an equal footing with bot sets of public schools - traditional and charter. The school taxes that everyone pays - including those parents who choose to send their children to private schools - should be allocated to the student, not the school or school system. The present system means that parents who prefer a private school are paying TWICE for their child's education - the school tax, plus the tuition for the private school. The voucher program merely lets the money follow the student. And if a public school is really better than the private one, the public school should have no reason to worry. The money follows the student... meaning that, as with businesses, shoddy workmanship and poor quality means the customer - the students and their parents - take their "business" to the facility that has the better product.
      • Keep talking
        Lynn Limes, what you describe is what I has speculated/feared would happen but had no facts to back it up. I hope you keep working on getting your message out!
        • Don't think so.
          I don't really know what Indiana is thinking. I have 2 grandkids that are attending public school in Indiana and both are getting a very good education, why take away from this? And just what do you think a Charter School will offer you that a public school does not?
        • BTW
          I am not a public school teacher, nor do I work in the public schools. I did, however, work as a curriculum designer for a large national charter, until I figured out the designs were meant only for approval at school board meetings. The actual classroom curriculum rarely matched my designs. The school board was promised education and instead received babysitting. Promised clubs, before- and after-school programs and mentoring projects were promised, but never delivered. Charter teachers are newly licensed, many ill-prepared, and all poorly paid, as well. Is that what you want for your children. Education by the bottom-of-the-barrel hires? I've worked with the largest companies and have yet to find a charter company that actually offers real education. Don't take my word! Investigate these schools for yourself. Don't rely on state legislators to do their homework. Charter school corporations contribute well to election campaigns. Google White Hat Management--a huge charter school group in Ohio--to discover what the parents are going through there after the OH legislature allowed White Hat to run over public education in the Akron/Cleveland area. Indiana needs to investigate now before we are dragged down this rough, and expensive, road!!
          • Charters Not the Answer
            Don't be fooled by charter-school promises. Charter schools are all about the money and only secondarily anything to do with education. Charter schools are sold as protected franchises, just like fast food operations, or are operated by one organization with unqualified subcontractors. The companies play on the emotions of parents with children at failing schools. While tax money is wasted on these charters, public schools fall further into decline due to the money that is syphoned off. Each charter school has at least one handsomely-paid administrator. The schools use our tax dollars. DEMAND to see the budget to determine where the school spends money. Big clue--it's not on teachers or classroom supplies. Compare administration salaries to actual classroom costs! Don't settle for claims of what will be done for your child. Ask for specific curriculum documents for your child's grade level. Visit--surprise visit---classrooms with a copy of the curriculum and ask the administration and teaching staff for an explanation of how the daily lesson fits into the scope and sequence for the year. You can demand to see any classroom and take a supervised visit. It's our tax money and, by law, a copy of the curriculum must be available for a public visit. Demand to see results on a spontaneous visit. I guarantee not just disappointment, but wholesale shock! NO class should be coloring or looking at videos for more than a few minutes during a lesson. That is not education. If kids are outside at PE or recess for long periods during the day, this is another flag. Have friends visit on other days and see the disaster unfold. Lessons, many times substandard, are taught just like you'd pull a rabbit from a hat. The content doesn't match the state and federal standards and the students suffer due to lack of overall staff preparation. Don't let the staff bully you into thinking your can't read curriculum design. They should be able to explain what is going on to your satisfaction. It's not rocket science, but it is a process that requires preparation by an educated staff--specifically in curriculum. Ask to meet the curriculum director--and look at education credentials. Make sure they aren't from an on-line school or a place like the University of Phoenix!! Parents CAN make a difference, if they take an active role in education. Charter schools are wholesale fraud!!! They are NOT the answer to problems with public schools!

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