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The Journal Gazette

Monday, October 24, 2016 10:00 pm

A public education

Phyllis Bush

One of my favorite lines is that it doesn’t matter until it matters, and by then it’s too late. By looking at the fiscal and personal impact of how education laws affect our children’s education and our own pocketbooks, the key issues of Indiana’s education reform laws should matter to all of us. Here are some of the laws that have had a significant effect:

Vouchers: The fiscal effect of the voucher program has long been a matter of dispute. Indiana spent $53 million on vouchers during the 2015-16 school year. However, if we look at how much the Indiana voucher program has grown since its inception, the total payments the state made to private schools for tuition were $131 million. This diversion of funds has been at the expense of already cash-strapped traditional public schools and has resulted in larger class sizes and has increased the student-teacher ratio in public schools.

Testing: While the debate over the glitch-filled ISTEP+ continues, many parents and students believe ISTEP and the numerous other tests being given are a waste of time, especially when their only discernible purpose is to hold schools or teachers accountable. In addition to what seems to be instructional pointlessness of many of these standardized tests, the annual cost of testing to Indiana taxpayers is astronomical. Even though the exact figures are difficult to corroborate, the cost has been estimated to be between $56.6 million and $130 million. Even so, educators believe many of these tests are instructionally inappropriate, and these tests have created a system that provides a great deal of data but very little information – and it arrives far too late to be instructionally useful.

A to F grading: What exactly does a school letter grade mean? In the eyes of a college admissions committee, is the work of the valedictorian from a C school commensurate with the course work of a valedictorian from an A or B school? If a neighborhood school receives a lower grade, what does that rating mean for property values? What do these grades mean to our communities? While our legislators contend that this rating scale is helping them hold schools accountable, the consequence is that the school letter grades are more of a measure of ZIP codes than of learning.

School funding: Property taxes are only used for specific needs such as transportation and capital projects. While few of us enjoy paying taxes, the consequences of the 2010 tax cap amendment have forced many school districts to reduce or eliminate many bus routes.

Teacher evaluation/merit pay: Merit pay sounds good on the surface; however, a new teacher finds out early on that his/her salary will be dependent on a rather dubious rating scale where he/she will receive a one-time stipend (not a raise) based on test scores and observations. According to this new system, the salary never changes and only a certain number of teachers will be eligible for merit pay, no matter how many "exemplary" teachers are in that district. Without any salary incentives, how will we retain good, young teachers?

I can only speculate about the intent of the people who have created these destructive policies, but the fiscal and personal costs to our children, our schools and our communities are immeasurable.

While politicians crow about the success of their reforms, the ultimate cost to Indiana is landing on the backs of students in the forms of larger class sizes, tests that provide little useful information, school letter grades that reward ZIP codes, by elimination of essential services and by the current teacher shortage.

While some of these bills may not matter directly to you, traditional public schools are the backbone of our democracy. If we want the best for our children and for our communities, we need to let policymakers know that, in Indiana, our schools and our children matter to all of us.

#RememberinNovember and hold these politicians accountable.