Turnabout on education hints at election fears

Legislative races across the state this year have quietly shaped up to be continuations of the acrid education fights that have punctuated the past two Indiana election cycles.

Democratic schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz and union leaders have attempted to trade on her surprise upset of former schools chief Tony Bennett two years ago with wide candidate recruitment and extensive campaigning throughout the state. House Republicans and conservatives, meanwhile, have been seeking to protect the Republican supermajority in the House with extensive spending and sweeping changes in education made in 2011.

The fight is still the same as in the 2010 and 2012 elections: supporters of conservative education overhauls fighting supporters of the established public school system and teachers unions. The players are the same, too, with the unions lining up money and support for (mostly) Democrats, while conservative education reformers line up (mostly) with Republicans.

But some of the names have changed: Hoosiers for School Choice, the chief group backed by Republican powerbrokers, changed its name to Hoosiers for Quality Education. The messaging has changed, too: Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma dropped all mention of "education reform" at his rollout of the House Republicans' 2015 agenda, instead talking extensively of "public education."

A couple of factors have merged to make education one of the defining issues of the 2014 cycle, said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. The release of a report showing vouchers cutting into public school funding for the first time and the large number of candidates looking to rely on the "Ritz machine" have contributed to that focus, he said.

"Public education is public education," Downs said, noting that support for public education was written into the state constitution in 1816. The public thinking has become, "While we're willing to accept some money going to support those who wish to send their children to private school, or religious school, that's fine, but at some point you cross a line."

Both sides have been throwing large amounts of money, at least by state legislative standards, into a handful of key House and Senate races to get their arguments across. Hoosiers for Quality Education, the group closely associated with Bennett and his supporters, gave $275,000 to candidates over the past six months, while the Indiana State Teachers Association, still ailing from a pension scandal and multi-million dollar settlement with the state, gave a whopping $957,000 in the same period.

Both sides are using controversial and unpopular surrogates as part of their attacks. In a northern Indiana race, Democrat Deb Porter was hit with an attack comparing her to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. In southern Indiana, Republican Erin Houchin was hit with a Democratic attack tying her to Bennett.

For his part, Bosma looks to be protecting his caucus members with both extensive spending by the campaign committee and his messaging pivot on education.

Bosma's declaration that school funding will be overhauled in 2015 to give more money to rural and suburban schools is a nod to the political realities of Bennett's stunning loss in 2012. Three different groups came together to oust Bennett: teachers angry over sweeping changes, tea partyers angry over Common Core and suburban voters angry over "A-F" school grades.

Whatever comes of this most recent election cycle, count on the education battles to continue inside the Statehouse this session. And count on the same dynamics driving decisions.

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