VIEWPOINT: The trouble with public schools: Too public

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The problem with public education is that it has become too “public.” Back in the days when boards of education possessed all power over construction of school facilities, a few boards around the state were far too eager to build elaborate educational and
athletic palaces when functionally and technically efficient classrooms were all that were really needed.

The outrage from a handful of property taxpayers finally reached the Statehouse. (The outcry over a proposed football facility in the Carmel-Clay School District comes to mind as an example of extravagance gone wild.)

To solve the problem of a few school boards going on elaborate spending sprees, the General Assembly took much of the power to authorize building programs away from all boards of education. The result, however, has been one of the worst things that has ever happened to public education in Indiana.

The General Assembly passed legislation that creates a “remonstrance” process that allows property owners, and now registered voters, to stop all proposals for the construction of school buildings or the
updating and modernizing of existing ones, regardless of how badly that construction, updating or modernization is needed.

Many Hoosiers not qualified to judge whether projects are really needed have adopted the view that doing what’s best for their own pocketbooks is more important than doing what’s best for schoolchildren. So the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, with the result that Indiana has an increasing number of dilapidated school facilities that lack technology, safety or efficiency.

By giving the power of the veto to property taxpayers and registered voters, the mandate to do what’s best for “all” the schoolchildren in a district has been replaced in many instances by self-interest and personal economy, regardless of how much unsafe old buildings need replacing or how much upgrades are needed for existing facilities. A few of the big spenders, in effect, have ruined it for the rest of the school districts, and the General Assembly has fixed the problem by “tweaking” it with a sledge

The irony is, historically, school boards in Indiana have generally been reluctant to do much to improve their buildings or facilities. The philosophy has traditionally been, don’t fix the roof on the elementary school until it starts to leak or until the custodial staff runs out of buckets. So, for generations, most property taxpayers didn’t need to worry about paying more for education in Indiana because their school boards were just about as reluctant to spend money for schools as the people they represented.

Now, however, when schools built nearly a century ago are in need of replacement, and that need is recognized by forward-thinking school boards, the remonstrance process has often been able to keep modernization projects from happening.

Who suffers? Our children do, and that is why public education in Indiana is too public.

Barada is an author and president of Barada Associates Inc., a reference-checking service in Rushville.

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