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Agenda for schools leaves many behind

In January, the four of us, who serve as the Democrats on the House Education Committee, outlined our hopes for the 2013 session of the Indiana General Assembly, particularly in joining with Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz to offer common-sense solutions to improve the quality of education for our children.

With the halfway point of this session past us, we remain optimistic that positive steps can be taken. But that optimism is tempered by the reality that education policies are being directed by a legislative majority that has a radically different agenda.

One of our goals was to restore a sense of normalcy for students attending our public schools. Consider their plight: Thanks to budget cuts demanded by the last governor, they have faced larger class sizes, cuts in programs, fewer extracurricular activities, greater fees and more layoffs affecting favorite teachers.

At the same time, we have seen rapid movement toward a system that provides one source of funding for three separate types of schools: public, private and charter.

With the election of Ritz last November, many of us felt the people of Indiana were sending a message that it was time to take a deep breath and analyze what had been wrought.

As it was said back on the first day of the session last January, Hoosiers don’t want our children to be experiments or science projects. They want a solid education where schools are safe, class sizes are small and struggling students get a little extra help.

That is not what is happening.

Our concerns begin with the budget plan that passed out of the Indiana House earlier this session.

It has been claimed this budget increases support for public schools, even though it doesn’t restore more than $300 million that had been cut from these same schools over the past two years. Beyond that, the budget cuts support to 30 percent of Indiana’s public schools in the first year and 40 percent of those schools in the second year, even though our state has a budget surplus of more than $2 billion.

More disturbing, though, is that there has been a conscious effort to speed up the experimentation and take power away from the office of the superintendent of public instruction for no other reason than the current officeholder is from a different political party than those who control the legislature.

Consider the following bills that have passed out of the House so far this session:

•House Bill 1357 allows anyone to become a superintendent, even if they have never held a teaching license.

•HB 1003 continues a tax break for parents who home school their children or send them to a private school; that tax break cannot be used by parents who send their children to a public school.

•HB 1005 provides increased funding for testing – or, should we say, more funding for the companies that provide the testing – and less funding to identify the problems our children face and determine how to solve them.

•HB 1338 expands virtual charter schools with no accompanying accountability to ensure that they actually work.

Even a bill that has some good aspects includes an unwarranted and unnecessary attack on unions. HB 1334 allows teachers to take a tax credit for personal money they spend in the classroom. However, an amendment forbids schools from having voluntary union dues deducted from teachers’ paychecks. This proposal does not affect deductions for police and firefighters’ unions, and it allows for other deductions.

This is simply an attack on teachers and unions. It does nothing to strengthen the education our sons and daughters receive in the classroom.

As bad as all that is, it still could have been worse.

HB 1337 – a proposal from the House majority that would have replaced an already-flawed school grading system with a new scale based on criteria established by bureaucrats rather than educators – was shot down. This idea could not even get enough support from members of the majority that proposed it.

HB 1342 – which would have placed control of Indiana’s school voucher program in the hands of appointed bureaucrats, rather than the state schools superintendent – was pulled from the calendar by the House speaker.

We are pleased that these ideas did not survive, and we hope lawmakers let common sense overcome any desire to revive them before the end of this session in April.

As for those that remain alive, we encourage the people of Indiana to examine them and recommend that our state senators place them aside to pursue a different course.

In the time we have left in this legislative session, we propose that lawmakers leave the experimentation behind and determine what actually should be our priority: improving the quality of the education that our children receive in the classroom.

State Reps. (clockwise from top left) Vernon G. Smith, D-Gary; Kreg Battles, D-Vincennes; Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point; and Sue Errington, D-Muncie, wrote this for Indiana newspapers.

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