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Indiana schools chief says education changes needed

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State-funded vouchers for private schools and a shift of money to charter schools are necessary steps in the effort to improve Indiana's education system, the state schools superintendent said Tuesday.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, a Republican, told the Senate Appropriations Committee that he thought the state should seize the opportunity to remake its education system at a time when neighboring states are facing school funding cuts.

Democratic committee members questioned Bennett whether traditional schools would be weakened by loss of students and funding, and a teachers union official argued many details were lacking on impact of the proposed changes backed by Bennett and Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Gail Zeheralis of the Indiana State Teachers Association said the group was worried about increasing pressure on schools when the proposed state budget would cut funding by more than 5 percent for 40 of the state's nearly 300 districts.

"Now we are invoking, sort of artificially, new pressures on the system that could use some stability," she said. "There are going to be a slew of districts that will really feel a lot of pain."

The Republican-controlled Senate committee started public hearings this week on the new state budget, even though a plan hasn't been approved by the House because of the month-long boycott by Democrats. The plan approved by the GOP-led House Ways and Means Committee would keep school funding at current levels, but cuts of about $450 million, or about 3 percent, over the last two years by Daniels wouldn't be restored.

Sen. Lindel Hume, D-Princeton, asked why so many proposals that would splinter funding from traditional schools were being pushed rather than finding ways to improve all schools. Sen. John Broden, D-South Bend, argued that school districts struggling with large numbers of students from poor families would be hardest hit by both loss of children to other school options and funding cuts.

Bennett countered that greater competition would spur improvement by school districts and lead to better opportunities for students.

"I don't believe these are distractions," Bennett said. "I don't believe that the children in Gary believe that high-quality charter options are a distraction."

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