It feels like a victory. In the Indiana state legislature, House Bill 1134 has died. It is reason for celebration but cautious and measured celebration. If history has taught us anything we should know that this is not over. The attacks on public education will rage on and on until GOP supermajorities are successful or until they are gone—and that could be a very long time because, well, this is Indiana. There have been many points in the history of this war where it felt like we’d accomplished something significant only to have our hopes dashed by another wave of attacks. The enemy here is complacency, the ally is vigilance.
Let’s look back on some of the history of gains and losses here on the Indiana front of the war on public education.
The year 2012 was a monumental year in the war against public education. We had just come through the years of the Mitch Daniels administration during which much of the war against public schools became so apparent to people outside of education. You couldn’t miss it. Daniels was in charge when so much of the damage that we are still reeling from was done. It was during the Daniels era when the school grading system was put in place, creating an unavoidable Bell Curve where all public school students were placed in to cohorts based upon standardized test scores of high, medium, and low, virtually assuring that 1/3 of the students were set up to fail no matter what. Schools which had more students in the lower categories would be put on watch lists or even be at risk of being taken over by the state. Schools with high rates of poverty and trauma-affected students became stigmatized by their low ratings. Public tax money was made available in the form of school choice vouchers so that parents who could afford to provide transportation could send their kids to private schools on the public dime. With the potential loss of students, public schools suddenly had to sell themselves through advertising campaigns to recruit students from outside their districts because each student enrolled means money to keep the schools running. School funding was tied directly to this completely inequitable system. The rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. The Indiana legislature began to systematically chip away at teachers’ unions. They attacked collective bargaining. They tied teacher pay raises directly to the terribly biased system of standardized testing, causing thousands of teachers in schools stigmatized with low grades to go year after year with little or no pay raises at all. This created a completely unbalanced pay scale in many schools where older teachers whose salaries had been grandfathered in under the old guaranteed graduated pay scales now were making WAY more money than newer teachers who were stuck at or near the entry level pay rates. Property taxes were frozen, which had disastrous financial consequences for many school districts, forcing them to take out bank loans just to make payroll and then stump for public referendums to stay solvent, some successfully, some not. The stress of this system piled up year after year until many teachers couldn’t take it anymore and began to leave the profession. Some insiders, like myself, began to report the approaching crisis way back then—some listened, most didn’t. Then, we got a break because greed and corruption in this system surfaced. The Superintendent of Public Education under Governor Daniels was Tony Bennett. He got caught with his hand in the cookie jar, so to speak. One of his pet charter schools wasn’t doing so well in the school grading system he helped to create. So, to try to save face, he arranged for the grade of that school to be artificially inflated. When this story broke, even public education outsiders were forced to take notice and the door was opened for new blood to be infused into Indiana public education leadership.
- Election of Glenda Ritz
The election cycle in 2012 was a real landmark for Indiana for good and bad. It brought us a new governor, Mike Pence, who only took the awful Daniels legacy on public education and made it worse. But it also brought a remarkable story of how grass roots politics can still move mountains in this country. It brought us Glenda Ritz. Ritz was a mostly unknown educator who threw her hat in the ring to run against the embattled incumbent, Tony Bennett. She quickly got the support of the teachers’ unions and became a household name almost overnight among public school insiders. Teachers across the state mobilized and became, many for the first time, politically active doing everything they could to spread the word about the critical need to oust Bennett. When the smoke had cleared, a truly remarkable thing happened. Ritz, with an underfunded start up campaign easily defeated the far wealthier campaign of Bennett. To further illustrate how amazing this was, Glenda Ritz received more votes in her Superintendent of Public Education race than Mike Pence’s winning total in the gubernatorial race! Imagine that! I’ve never been more moved by an election. It was something to see, truly inspiring, and a reason to celebrate. But not for long…
- Pence and the GOP Supermajority Legislature Strike Back
It quickly became apparent that the new Governor was not about to let the will of the people ruin his plans for public education. This self-proclaimed champion of small government sucked the joy out of the Ritz election, smashed the will of the electorate under his heal, and created from scratch a second state board of education and gave it most of the power, effectively stripping Glenda Ritz of most of her influence. This move was as dirty as anything I’ve ever seen in politics. It probably impressed Donald Trump enough to put Pence on his list of running mates for the election of 2016. But the long-term effect on public education in Indiana was that it effectively gave the GOP carte blanche to do just about anything they wanted to do to destroy public education as we knew it.
- Recent Legislation
In the interest of keeping this brief, I’m going to skip ahead some years. Suffice to say that in the years since Pence, things have gotten steadily worse for education in Indiana and any cause for celebration has been quickly replaced by the next wave of attacks. Take Senate Bill 167 for instance. I wrote about that piece of garbage in much more detail here. That bill threatened to drop a nuclear bomb on public school teachers. Teachers from all over the state, writers like myself, podcasters, news reporters, and the like reported far and wide about the potential fall out from this legislation should it pass. We put the issue front and center, in the face of the public in every forum we could find. And we appeared to be successful. SB167 died in the Senate. We celebrated! But it was short lived. Even as SB167 was issuing its death rattle in the Senate, an identical bill was being birthed in the House of Representatives…House Bill 1134 was the same pig in different lipstick. This time, education insiders were forced to go back on the counter attack. This is the drill. Each time we have to go out and make public pleas against harmful education legislation, we sound more and more like spoiled, desperate children. We can feel it in our bones, that feeling that we can almost hear Joe Public out there saying, oh brother, here come the loud mouthed, entitled teachers again. This is exactly what the GOP supermajority is hoping for. That’s why they keep launching these anti-education missiles at us, banking on the probability that the more we complain, the sooner the general public will get sick of us and stop listening. Once that happens, they will have won the war. HB1134 got closer to being passed than its predecessor did. HB1134 made it through the House before it finally died in the Senate yesterday.
Cause for celebration?
History says no.
History says stay vigilant.
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