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Monday, July 22, 2024

Education reform inspires intense war of words

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Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ sweeping education agenda has spurred angry protests, hours-long legislative hearings and some of the harshest rhetoric the Statehouse has heard in years.

A recent newspaper headline proclaimed a “war” over Daniels’ idea to expand charter schools. Teachers say they are “under attack” from the Republican administration. And House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, caused some jaws to drop when he said on the House floor last month that teachers are being “Mitch-slapped” by the governor’s aggressive agenda.

The language surrounding the fight over Daniels’ proposals – including teacher merit pay, limited collective bargaining and vouchers that send taxpayer money to private schools – reflects how passionately both sides feel about the major changes on the horizon.

In one corner is Daniels, with outspoken state Superintendent Tony Bennett by his side and GOP leaders in the House and Senate shepherding his agenda through the legislative process. In another corner are teachers, their union representatives and Democrats, who have virtually no power in the Statehouse this year after big GOP gains in November elections.

The two sides have sparred over the policy implications of Daniels’ proposals, but there’s plenty of bickering about the words surrounding the debates as well.

For example, Daniels and Bennett say their agenda is aimed at improving Indiana schools, recognizing and rewarding the best teachers and giving families more options. They named the education agenda “Putting Students First.” Even the name offends teachers who say they are already focused on helping children.

Sen. Tim Skinner, a Democrat from Terre Haute who is a teacher, said Daniels’ calls for “reforms” and “putting students first” are the least offensive words they could find to hide what he calls the true nature of the “Dr. Kevorkian” proposals.

“It’s the assisted suicide of public education,” Skinner said, adding that Daniels “brilliantly” framed the issue to put teachers on the defensive.

A recent e-mail circulated in the Statehouse shared a teacher’s description of a Statehouse chat with Daniels and some other teachers. The teacher claimed Daniels called Indiana education “horrible” and said teachers are overpaid, but the Daniels’ administration wrote an e-mail response to lawmakers saying the account was “malicious and full of falsehoods” and that Daniels holds teachers in the highest regard.

When Daniels argued that teacher collective bargaining should be limited, he said contracts “go too far when they dictate the color of the teachers’ lounge.” One district – the School City of East Chicago – does state that its teachers’ lounge should be “attractive, comfortable and spacious.” But Skinner said Daniels exaggerated an anomaly to vilify collective bargaining before setting out to erode it.

Teachers and Democrats – now backed into a corner with no legislative power – are baring teeth. More than 1,000 teachers denounced Daniels’ proposals at a recent rally, and Democrats made fiery speeches against his plan to expand charter schools. Many at the rally held signs criticizing Daniels for wanting to privatize or destroy education.

Daniels and other Republicans took shots at teachers unions after the rally, saying unions care more about their organization than young people.

“Their special interest domination of education policy from the local level to the Statehouse has hurt Indiana children for too long, and this year, change must finally come,” Daniels said in a statement.

Robert Dion, who teaches politics at the University of Evansville, said it’s not surprising that the rhetoric on both sides is heating up now that one party has all the power in the Statehouse. Republicans and Democrats know that this year, anyway, they don’t have to eventually make up and work together to get legislation passed.

“It gets personal,” Dion said.

Surprisingly, the outspoken Bennett – who has been a lightning rod for education issues since taking office in 2009 – has tried to be a calming influence of late. He and the president of the state’s largest teachers union pledged earlier this year to keep the debates civil.

Bennett has traveled the state to hold public forums with teachers and holds “Breakfast with Bennett” events to visit teachers in a casual setting. Bennett’s office claims he has traveled more and spent more time with teachers than any other superintendent.

Bennett said the state has many great teachers and that he doesn’t have negative words for them, but he acknowledged that in his effort to fix problems with some Indiana schools, teachers and schools that excel may have felt caught up in the rhetoric.

“I do regret that good teachers have been lumped in,” he said.

Daniels said in his January State of the State address that he expected to take some heat for his proposals.

“Advocates of change in education become accustomed to being misrepresented,” Daniels said. “If your heart breaks at the parade of young lives permanently handicapped by a school experience that leaves them unprepared for the world of work, you must be ‘anti-public schools.’”

Skinner said teachers are the ones who feel under siege. He said Republican lawmakers are advancing Daniels’ agenda without pause and morale is plummeting in Indiana schools.

“The pride is no longer there,” Skinner said. “Teachers have been reluctant to stand up. Now it’s too late.”

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