INDIANAPOLIS — In the same week that Indiana schools chief Tony Bennett praised the Dickinson Fine Arts Academy in South Bend for improving its test scores enough to avoid a state takeover, the South Bend Community School Corp. voted to eliminate 89 jobs.
The layoffs amid plaudits for a school that showed major improvements on the ISTEP+ standardized tests underlined the pressure on Indiana's schools to achieve better results with less money amid a massive overhaul of Indiana's education system.
Sue Coney, communications director for the South Bend district, said her schools took a large hit from a new state law that ties funding directly to the number of students enrolled. The school corporation is dropping 46 teachers and 43 support staff, she said. And those cuts followed news from Hammond last month that it may shed 200 school jobs as it tries to trim $7.7 million from its budget.
"They have to take a look at their goals, prioritize funding items, and put the money where it will have greatest potential for positive student outcomes. You're bound to disappoint a lot of people who want to see their top educational priorities funded — for one reason or another," Bennett spokeswoman Stephanie Sample said of the choices all school districts are struggling with.
"When it comes to people losing their jobs, it's the worst position for everyone involved. When it has to happen, it should be based on performance," she said.
The Indiana State Teachers Association puts the number lost in the last year, either from layoffs or attrition, at 685 teachers. ISTA President Nate Schnellenberger said the layoffs may seem minimal when spread across the entire state, but that's because schools have only recently started cutting "to the bone" following years of continual cuts in state education aid.
"Now we're to the point where we're really impacting services we can provide to the kids," he said.
Spending on education has been a constant sore point for Democrats and Republicans in the Statehouse. Responding to last week's announcement that the state had amassed enough cash to send roughly $100 back to each taxpayer, Democratic lawmakers argued the refunds had been built from destructive cuts to Indiana's schools and social services. Republicans, including Gov. Mitch Daniels, argue that education has been protected more than other state agencies, which took major hits through the Great Recession.
In the last three years, state spending on education has dropped from roughly $6.6 billion in the 2010 budget to $6.54 billion each of the last two years. The amount still spent may seem massive when put in the context of a state budget of $14 billion or so each year, but is much less than what state lawmakers originally wanted for schools. It also accounts for a massive shift in spending away from the localities, after the state assumed the operational costs of most schooling and swapped an increase in the sales tax for a cap on property tax rates.
Add to that Indiana's school voucher law, expanded charter school access, limits placed on teachers' collective bargaining and a new teacher evaluation model and the changes in Indiana's education system in the last few years have been sweeping.
"I think we will see more change between 2010 and 2020 than we've seen between 1910 and 2010," said David Dresslar, executive director of the Center for Excellence in Leadership of Learning at the University of Indianapolis.
The pain of trying to improve student test scores while getting little in additional resources is clear, he said.
Working with limited spending and new demands, Indiana's next governor should spend a relatively small amount of the education budget on two things: teacher evaluations and teacher professional development, he said. Dresslar cited an estimate that Bill Gates floated last week in a speech to state educators in Atlanta, in which Gates said spending between 1.5 percent and 2 percent of the education budget on those two things would improve teaching greatly.
Hoosiers elect a new governor in November, and lawmakers return to the Statehouse in January to begin work on Indiana's next biennial budget. That money for evaluations and training, between $98 million and $131 million based on last year's spending, should come on top of what is already being spent, Dresslar said.
"If I was the next governor, that's what I would do," he said. "I think it would be an investment that would pay rewards for a generation."