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MEREDITH: Holcomb should chart new education agenda

November 19, 2016

Meredith
This month, Indiana voters chose to elect Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb governor. As Holcomb readies himself for the position, I urge him to ditch the out-of-touch, failed education policies pushed by Gov. Mike Pence and former Gov. Mitch Daniels.

The Pence and Daniels legacy of championing education reforms including further expansion of vouchers and charter schools, erosion of collective bargaining rights, continuation of the overemphasis on student testing and a flawed teacher evaluation system, must be reassessed. The governor-elect should work with public-school educatorsto chart a new course for education policy.

The 2017 legislative session begins shortly after the governor is sworn in. It is a budget year, which will prove significant in establishing a policy direction for education. Under Pence, public schools received a 2.3 percent statewide average increase for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. However, under the new funding formula, a large proportion of school districts lost money. Budget cuts during the Great Recession were never truly replaced, and the more recent funding increases haven’t kept pace with inflation. Public tax dollars are now being divided into three separate pieces of the pie as a result of continued voucher growth and charter school expansion, and our community-based public schools are taking the hit.

Indiana has the largest voucher program in the nation and continues to operate it at a loss. The program, at its inception, was touted as a cost-saving program, but last year, the voucher program cost the state $131 million in Hoosier tax dollars and operated at a $53 million deficit—higher than the $40 million deficit in 2014-2015.

Legislators have offered the idea of education savings accounts, which would provide debit cards or accounts to any eligible student for use at private-education vendors, to buy curricular materials, tutoring and other educational services. It is yet another proposal to diminish public schools. Will there be any accountability to Hoosier taxpayers?

Without a foundation for improved student learning, charter schools have been allowed to grow persistently. More than half of the state’s charters are D and F schools compared to just one in 10 for traditional public schools. Cases of financial fraud and abuse, as well as sudden school closures, are also on the rise.

Additionally, the state still has no alternative assessment to the ISTEP, and educators statewide are fed up with the flawed A-F grading that punitively labels schools, kids and communities. Indiana is faced with a teacher shortage and a decline in enrollment in schools of education. The state is one of the lowest in the country for salary growth among educators. They are leaving the profession because they cannot afford to stay, and our students are losing out as a result.

Efforts to eliminate public pensions continue each year with legislative proposals to encourage new school employees to choose a 401(k)-style retirement option instead of a traditional pension. Employees would take a major hit to retirement benefits by doing so. Pence also proposed raiding the public retirement funds to invest in companies and entrepreneurial projects—risky options funded by public tax dollars.

With such a full plate of education issues awaiting Holcomb in 2017, my hope is that he will reach out to public-school educators and work with them directly to address the issues facing the education profession and the kids who rely on a quality public education.•

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Meredith is president of the Indiana State Teachers Association and has taught for more than 20 years in Indiana schools. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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