Pushing Back Against the Push Back: An Open Letter to Abdul-Hakim Shabazz

Dear Mr. Shabazz,

I read with interest your guest column contribution in the Anderson Herald-Bulletin on Monday, Nov. 25. The headline, A Little Education for Indiana’s Teachers, certainly caught my attention. It sounded a bit snarky and condescending, but I didn’t jump to conclusions because, as a newspaper columnist myself, I understand that you probably didn’t write that headline. However, within your first paragraph, I realized that you’d no doubt approve of it. You wrote that now that teachers got to have our say at the Statehouse, “it’s time to drop some facts. No offense, guys and gals, but whomever you’ve been listening to, they have done you a disservice. You all have been misled, miseducated, and misdirected on this issue.” Mr. Shabazz, sir, I must say that I find that insulting. I am going to drop some facts on you because it is you who has been misled, miseducated, and misdirected.

Mr. Shabazz, you are an attorney. You are claiming to know more about the issues of public education than those 20,000 teachers who gathered on the Statehouse lawn and the many thousands more around the state who couldn’t make it. You say you’ve done the “research” and dropped some “facts” on us that amounted to cherry-picked statistics that mean absolutely nothing when it comes to getting to the heart of the real issue. Your numbers may indeed be factual, but they show absolute ignorance–whether that ignorance is genuine or willful I don’t claim to know–about what the actual problems are. So, Mr. Shabazz, allow me, a 19-year veteran of public education, to educate you.

To begin your piece you mentioned that you’ve already addressed the teacher pay issue, so you cited some statistics and glossed over that whole problem. With all due respect, Mr. Shabazz, I’m not about to let you get away that because it is absolutely imperative for the general public to look beyond the numbers that you, Governor Holcomb, and the leading members of the supermajority state legislature love to tout in order to say, “see, look at all the money we throw at education, this isn’t our fault, blame the superintendents and school boards, they are the ones who distribute the money.” With this sort of deflection, you attempt to cover the root sins of our legislature and ignore the inequitable system they have created for the past 15 years. Let me say this as clearly and succinctly as I can, I’ll even put it in caps, bold, and italics for emphasis because nobody on your side of the debate will address it or even face it: IT IS NOT ABOUT THE AMOUNT OF MONEY THE STATE OF INDIANA GIVES TO EDUCATION, IT’S ABOUT THE SYSTEM THEY CREATED TO FUNNEL MONEY OUT OF UNDERPRIVILEGED SCHOOLS IN FAVOR OF PRIVILEGED SCHOOLS.

You could throw another billion dollars at public education and, under the current system, it still wouldn’t get to where it’s needed most.

Read that again, Mr. Shabazz, and let it sink in.

I believe that the state of Indiana could probably solve most of our issues without adding one dime to the education budget–in fact, they might even be able to save money–simply by repealing many of the dreadful policies they have put in place over the past decade and a half.

Mr. Shabazz, you seem to be completely oblivious to the fact that the state of Indiana has created a reverse Robin Hood policy on teacher compensation. Over the past decade, a huge pay gap has been developing between affluent school districts and high poverty/trauma districts and between veteran teachers such as myself and newer teachers. This has created an unhealthy amount of competition between school districts. With the critical and daily worsening teacher shortage, it has become easy for a newer teacher to shop their services to schools that will offer them the best chance at getting regular pay raises. Under Indiana’s system, those tend to be the schools with the least amount of poverty, crime, drugs, and trauma. The best and brightest young teachers will now avoid, if at all possible, those districts that need them the most because the state starves those schools of funds and encourages the wealthier parents in those districts to pull their students out by utilizing vouchers. The rich get richer and poor get poorer. Let’s go back about 10 years. When Indiana took away schools’ graduated pay scales, where teachers had a built in raise with every new year of service, and replaced it with the formula that bases any new pay raises on accountability to standardized test scores, they doomed thousands upon thousands of teachers to be stuck in their entry level salaries year after year. That was a criminal act, in my opinion. That act alone, has done more to harm public education than any other and it is directly responsible for much of the teacher shortage problem. You and your ilk, Mr. Shabazz, always refuse to even acknowledge this crucial piece of the puzzle. You like statistics, well, here’s a good one for you: With inflation figured into the equation, the average teacher in Indiana makes 10% less now than we did 20 years ago. That’s why we rank 51st in the nation in pay growth and that has almost nothing to do with the amount of money the state budgets for education and everything to do with the shameful way they “hold teachers accountable.” Those numbers you and Governor Holcomb love to put out there mean absolutely nothing to a young teacher in a high poverty/trauma school–NOTHING.

Now, about the other issues you “educated” us about in your column. You say that the new licensing renewal requirement of 15 hours of externship is not “extra hours” but, rather, are already figured into the 90 existing hours of professional development required of teachers. That’s just a flat out misrepresentation of facts, Mr. Shabazz. No teacher I know of would resent having professional development to help keep us, as you put it, “in tune with the workforce needs of their community.” There’s nothing wrong with that concept at all. But making it an externship is an unnecessary burden on already WAY overburdened teachers. If you want to have teachers learn about the needs of the workforce in our communities, send the representatives of the workforce to us and let them present them. We’ll even put out a nice spread of snacks for them. But that’s not what the legislature wants. They want to give us more hoops to jump through. That 15 hours of externship will end up being many more hours of commuting to and from different businesses around their area. Time is money. Sitting in traffic and burning gas must be figured into that completely unnecessary burden. As an attorney, Mr. Shabazz, surely you can relate to how valuable your time is. Don’t you charge a lot of money to clients for every minute you spend working on a case? Tell me again how that 15 hours is “already figured into the 90 hours required…”

I have already addressed my thoughts on how to fix testing and make it a truly equitable way to hold teachers accountable for what we actually teach in our classrooms. I wrote a detailed article about that which you can read here. Suffice to say, the way the Indiana is trying to hold teachers accountable is the furthest thing from fair and equitable that I can imagine, and if something doesn’t change, and fast, we are headed toward an abyss from which we may never escape.

So, Mr. Shabazz, let me borrow from the last paragraph of your column and tweak it just a bit to close my letter to you:

So, when writers push back against the teachers of Indiana by expressing their 1st Amendment rights of speech and the press, I will give them a big round of applause for peacefully expressing what they perceive are their grievances with the educators’ agenda. However, the next time they write a column, it would be nice for them to do their homework so they’re not misled, misdirected, and miseducated.


Shane Phipps

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10 Replies to “Pushing Back Against the Push Back: An Open Letter to Abdul-Hakim Shabazz”

  1. Is a shame that as a minority Mr. Shabazz doesn’t support social justice! This is the whole point of the Red for Ed movement!

    1. What does being a minority have to do with anything? So minorities just need to get in line with group speak?

  2. Thank you for your valuable written contributions. Your detailed explanations help to clarify what’s happening with our legislature and Indiana education.
    We’re in an extremely important time that calls for educators to be involved at the state level to undo a decade of destructive legislative decisions.

  3. I agree with many of your arguments, but this is the second article that I have seen from you (maybe there are others) that has stated voucher programs are used by wealthy families. My understanding is that Indiana provides voucher money only to low income families with various percentages of tuition being given based on that income. Do you have a source showing that wealthy families are actually the ones receiving this money?

    1. Given the fact that vouchers do not cover transportation, those families most impoverished normally don’t have the ability to provide that for their children.

  4. You do know that the so-called affluent districts are the lowest funded by the state, right? HSE, Carmel and Zionsville are the bottom three. Should more money be taken from those schools? Those schools get much less in federal money, too. A better argument would be to fund all public schools enough so referendums would not need to be run to pay teachers better.

    1. Those schools teachers tend to get raises every year. That’s the point. It’s the formula that qualifies teachers for raises or not that has caused the dramatic gaps in teacher compensation and it’s causing struggling schools to have enormous problems with staff turnover.

  5. Public school teachers can’t receive a raise – move up a step on the salary scale – if they aren’t rated as effective or highly effective. You can talk about the reasons why the teacher evaluation system isn’t fair, but it isn’t right to say that the “system” is funneling money away from some public school districts and giving it to others. The funding formula is designed to give a lot more money to lower-achieving schools. Please do some research on the funding formula because you aren’t helping the cause by making a false statement that affluent schools are taking money away from poor schools. What you might think is an affluent school is probably one of the lowest funded in the state.

    1. When teachers in more affluent districts reap the benefits their clientele provide them, they receive more compensation from the pool of monies allocated for teacher raises. Teachers in high crime, poverty, trauma districts that are labeled as “failing” are hard pressed to achieve the “effective/highly effective label” and consequently get nothing. This creates a situation where schools are stigmatized by the “failing” label. Higher performing students in such schools are sometimes lost to vouchers, exacerbating the situation. Teachers in struggling schools become so beset by stress, trauma, and low pay that they seek greener pastures in more affluent districts, or they leave teaching altogether. Struggling schools have an extremely difficult time replacing them and, often, those replacements leave after a short time in the job. The system designed to “get more money into “lower-achieving schools”is an utter disaster.

  6. I find it sad that you are pitting teachers against teachers depending on the student clientele they receive, and your not understanding how the funding formula works. It was only a few years ago that Indiana was sued over the inequities in the formula and finally fixed it.

    I truly hope you are not speaking for the ISTA in this letter because that’s not what they said, and I supported, in their Red for Ed publicity – take money from some public schools to give to other public schools. If so, this was clearly a bait and switch and I know many teachers, myself included, who would regret supporting the movement.

    Perhaps the legislature should look at consolidating the many school districts in Indiana that are operating with less than 1000 students. Many rural schools could save money and put the savings into teacher salaries if they combined resources – superintendents, buses, schools, etc.

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