Chesterton Tribune

One party government blamed for legislative extremism at teacher event

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Eleven northern Indiana lawmakers attended the Indiana State Teachers Association legislative breakfast on Saturday, not just for free coffee and doughnuts but to share insights with educators on contentious bills circulating thorough the General Assembly.

The event at Michigan City High School drew all four Duneland legislators and a surprise visit from Indiana House Minority Leader Pat Bauer, D-South Bend.

Bauer, an educator himself, urged teachers to continue taking a stand against the majority of Republican lawmakers introducing bills that include vouchers, restricting teacher’s bargaining rights, transforming public schools into turnaround academies and allowing schools to teach creationism from the viewpoints of various religions.

“You’ve got to fight because if you don’t, they will take away all of your rights,” said Bauer, telling teachers to speak with their voices firm, loud and with conviction. “You are the target. Don’t forget it.”

Bauer said whenever there is such a difference in the number of Democrats and Republicans in the Statehouse as there is now, that is the time when radical bills make their way into state law. He hinted a change in power could be coming as a result of this year’s state elections. “We need balance in this state. When we have balance, we have success.”

Indiana Assistant Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, deemed last year as the “worst for public education” since he’s been in office, mentioning the massive cuts public schools have endured. The laws on vouchers and school takeovers are already in effect and Pelath said his next move would be to see that some funding is restored and investment made in programs such as full-day kindergarten and early education.

“We can’t undo what’s been done but we will do our best going forward,” said Pelath.

Pelath said effective ways for constituents to have their views heard would be to stop “trying to finesse and cajole” state lawmakers and become more involved at the community level such as starting discussion groups, blogs and writing letters to the newspaper.

Echoing Pelath’s comments, State Rep. Nancy Dembowski, D-Knox, said citizens should never underestimate the power of working as a group.

Dembowski said building an educated workforce would surpass right-to-work in terms of creating jobs and advocated investing the $320 million found in an “unnoticed fund,” before the Assembly began, entirely into public education since that was roughly the same amount cut in 2010.

State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, a member of the Budget Committee, said the $320 million was corporate income tax that was “stuck in the drawer” and she and fellow committee members made cuts wondering why revenue forecasts were not being met. She insisted the money should go to programs that were axed.

“These cuts have to be put back in the next budget cycles. They have to be,” Tallian said.

Weighing in on funding, State Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, said his bill to ban smoking in public places statewide could indirectly generate more state revenue. Approximately $1 billion is spent in Indiana due to the effects of secondhand smoke and less health problems would mean being able to pay for children’s education or helping families put food on the table.

While many local legislators expressed the need to increase the number of students participating in Kindergarten (more than 21 percent of Kindergarten-aged children are not enrolled), a bill authored by Tallian, D-Portage, mandating half day kindergarten did not even receive a hearing.

However, full-day kindergarten could get an $80 million boost from the House Ways and Means committee proposed by chairman State Rep. Jeff Espich, R-Uniondale. A large portion of the $320 million has also been considered for teacher pension funds.

Meanwhile, ISTA Public Education Advocacy Coordinator Nancy Papas thanked State Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, and State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, for coordinating with ISTA on legislation that would help schools be tested more fairly.

Senate Bill 265, co-authored by Charbonneau would drop the lowest five percent of student scores on ISTEP testing on one of the two report cards sent to the state. A second bill, Senate Bill 280, would change school funding to be based on a fiscal year rather than a calendar year in order to streamline schools with the state budget which is determined every two years. SB 280 could bring $30 million to schools a little earlier in these crucial times, although none of those contains any new money, Charbonneau said.

Running on a fiscal year will also make it easier for schools to understand how much funding will be coming their way, Charbonneau said.

Soliday worked language into a bill that calls for the state testing reports to exclude students who cannot read or write in the English language.

Schools in the lowest category of ISTEP scores are targeted to become turnaround academies where a special management team is appointed by the state to replace a community school board, thus creating an “independent” school.

As the amount of testing continues, Papas said more teachers are finding themselves working long hours into the night just to fill out paperwork “burning themselves out” when they should be spending more time preparing lesson plans or other student activities.

“There is so much more to a school than a test score,” said Papas.

Soliday said he finds the pay-per-performance approach for teachers a less than effective way of solving problems and said the state needs to start changing its way of thinking by holding management liable for when a school is failing.

“Holding a manager accountable is how you get things done,” said Soliday.

Many of the laws passed in the 2011 General Assembly for items like school vouchers are being watched over by house members to see just what effect the new laws will have before any other major changes are made, Soliday said.

State Rep. Chuck Moseley, D-Portage, encouraged teachers to form an association or be part of a movement against the “painful changes.”

“Change is what it is by description. It’s not a permanent thing,” he said.

Papas said parents can also do their part by understanding their child’s needs. More parents are unfortunately finding less time to spend with their children because of long work hours, she said.

Members of the audience included a number of Valparaiso teachers who reminded the legislators of the $3.2 million shortfall in the school district’s General Fund for 2012, and without any relief money coming from the state, many teachers are concerned about whether the schools can perform basic functions.

“We’re in a crisis,” one teacher said.

Valparaiso Community School board is considering a voter referendum on creating a special tax levy to salvage staff and curriculum, not unlike the Duneland School Corporation which is contemplating establishing a new property tax as an additional revenue source.

The Duneland School Board will host two public input sessions this week, the first of which begins tonight at 7 p.m. in the Chesterton High School auditorium, followed by a second session on Thursday.

Duneland School Board member Ralph Ayres said the board must decide at their Feb. 13 meeting whether to pursue a referendum in time for the May 8 primary elections and that is why it is crucial to hear from local residents this week.

The legislators will gather again on Saturday, Feb. 25 for another public forum hosted by the Indiana Retired Teachers’ Association at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Valparaiso at 9:30 a.m., UniservDirector of ISTA Andrew Borrelli announced. The discussion which will include a broad range of public policy bills will be moderated by Ayres, a former state representative.


Posted 2/6/2012