The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, March 16, 2016 8:14 am

Session showed GOP's true agenda for schools

When the governor and General Assembly leaders said 2015 would be the education session, they weren’t kidding. Although the issue consumed time and energy, it unfortunately produced little to put Indiana schools back in position to serve students and raise achievement.

On the contrary, the session was a long and troublesome power struggle among politicians intent on securing policy to the benefit of something besides students and teachers. 

In the end, the GOP-controlled legislature approved Senate Bill 1. It postpones proposed changes to the state board leadership to 2017 but still throws out a century-old precedent of an elected official chairing the State Board of Education – a change that came without warning to voters. They lose direct representation, given that lawmakers didn’t consider allowing voters to elect the other state board members.

The bill also requires the 11-member board to immediately elect a vice chairman, with that individual sharing responsibility for meeting agendas with Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz. It also gives the board authority to hire its own executive director and staff. In effect, the provision establishes in law a second state education agency. Gov. Mike Pence had done the same with the Center for Education and Career Innovation, an agency he created by executive order and dissolved in the wake of complaints from lawmakers.

The changes represent a shameless power grab that already has raised the political stakes. Ritz, a Democrat, hinted Thursday that she’s considering a campaign for governor – a disappointing move that eliminates any last hope that educators, not politicians, will guide Indiana education policy.

There were other bills aimed at education this year. Not all were adopted, but they got serious attention: 

• In December, Pence called for removing the $4,800 cap on voucher payments for students at private schools. His budget proposal for schools – an extra $200 million – was a smaller increase for education than the previous two-year budget. The voucher cap was lifted and tax credits for private school contributions were increased, but lawmakers gave schools an additional $460 million overall.

• House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning – apparently oblivious to recent conflict-of-interest scandals – revealed at the session’s start that he had become an education consultant. Behning wanted to lobby in other states for a company that has done business in Indiana.

• Legislation was filed to expand testing. One bill would have added a civics test requirement for graduation, excluding students at voucher schools. Another would have pushed the pass-or-be-held-back reading test from third grade to second grade.

• In the legislative "fix" to the divisive religious freedom law, lawmakers exempted churches and their "affiliated schools." The effect will be to allow taxpayer-supported voucher schools to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. 

The education session? Indeed – the effects will haunt Indiana schools for years to come.

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