Getting an early start

Indiana House speaker calls for a big expansion of preschool support

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, (right) and Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, take the oath of office along with the rest of the House members during the annual Organization Day session to officially begin the 2017 legislative session.

More poor families who want help sending their children to preschool could have reason to rejoice next year.

Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma today announced that expanding preschool tuition scholarships would be one of his top priorities for the coming legislative session.

Other education priorities include a push to shift education dollars toward classroom expenses and away from school administrative and support services.

“We need to find a way to concentrate our education dollars in the classroom, where they are most effective with highly motivated teachers of high quality,” said Bosma, an Indianapolis Republican.

Bosma made education one of the centerpieces of his acceptance speech after being re-elected House speaker this afternoon during the General Assembly’s annual Organization Day. Lawmakers met for a short session to choose leaders and adopt basic rules before their work formally begins in January.

On preschool, Bosma called for expanding the preschool tuition vouchers that the state began as a pilot program in 2014. That $10 million program serves 1,585 kids in five counties, including Marion County, but demand for the program far exceeds availability.

Bosma is not alone in embracing the preschool expansion. Both the incoming governor, Eric Holcomb, the Indiana State Board of Education and incoming state schools superintendent, Jennifer McCormick, have called for more kids to receive the free service.

That’s a change from a few years ago when Gov. Mike Pence had to make a hard push to convince skeptical fellow Republicans to support state-funded preschool programs. This year, Holcomb favors a slow, deliberate expansion to a few counties at a time but Bosma said he believes the benefits of preschool are proven and he wants to move faster.

“I’d like to double or triple the program,” he said. “I don’t need to be convinced. I’ve seen it first hand and many others have. Not everyone is of the same option, and we do have fiscal constraints in the coming session that are very real.”

Democratic House leader Scott Pelath of Michigan City said his party also wants a faster expansion.

“I don’t really understand the hesitancy,” he said. “This state has been tiptoeing over hot coals on its way to pre-K. Let’s get it to the kids who need it. There are kids who need it in every county in Indiana.”

Bosma did not offer details on his claim that Indiana schools spend too much on administrative and support spending, nor did he outline any ideas for what changes should occur, saying lawmakers would figure that out during the session.

If there is money to shift, he said he wanted it to go to teachers to help make the profession more attractive to top college graduates.

“We need to continue to find ways to treat teaches as faculty rather than factory workers,” he said. “We’ve made progress on this but we need to do more. We need to free them from regulatory burdens and bureaucratic control to do the job they desire to do.”

Pelath said he wasn’t sure Bosma was right that spending on non-classroom supports was out of line, but he endorsed the need to pay teachers more.

“That requires careful analysis after which there could be some differences in interpretation,” he said. “But unambiguously we have to make sure teachers are fairly compensated for the market-based reason that you have to attract very good people to the profession.”

Voucher votes

Trump wants states to push vouchers. Tennessee shows why that might be hard, even in red states.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Voucher opponents cheer as Tennessee lawmakers exit the House chambers following Rep. Bill Dunn's decision last February to table voucher legislation.

When President-elect Donald Trump tapped Betsy DeVos as his choice for U.S. secretary of education, advocates of school tuition vouchers saw it as a good omen. The Michigan Republican is a staunch advocate for vouchers that allow taxpayer money to be spent on private schools.

But the perennial battle over vouchers in Tennessee, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump, suggests it won’t be easy for vouchers to sweep the nation, even if Trump’s administration champions federal incentives for such programs. While Tennessee’s Senate has voted in favor of a voucher bill three times since 2011, opponents have blocked it each year in the House of Representatives, albeit by decreasing margins. Opposition has coalesced around a fear of undermining public schools — a concern that transcends party lines and geography.

Tennessee’s voucher proposals have exclusively targeted urban schools, anomalies in a mostly rural state. But as each major vote approached, lawmakers in Nashville fielded calls from constituents back home who worried that the program would quickly expand at the expense of public schools in areas with few alternatives.

During the last legislative session, the perceived lack of public support for vouchers eclipsed Gov. Bill Haslam’s endorsement of them. It also countered an outpouring of spending from pro-voucher advocacy groups that include a state chapter of American Federation for Children, of which DeVos founded and serves as chairwoman of the board.

The most vocal opponent of vouchers has been the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union and an organization that many Republican lawmakers openly oppose. But lawmakers also got pushback from statewide professional groups that represent superintendents and school boards and argue that vouchers would hurt public schools.

Rep. Bill Dunn
PHOTO: TN.Gov
Rep. Bill Dunn

During the most recent legislative session, Rep. David Hawk, a Republican from Greeneville, made a last-minute attempt to make vouchers more palatable to sympathetic lawmakers wary of how the issue would play out at home. With the blessing of the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, Hawk amended the proposal so it only would impact Memphis, home to Tennessee’s largest school district and frequently a laboratory for the state’s education reforms. The move infuriated many Memphis lawmakers and failed to sway enough undecided legislators to push the bill over the top.

Still, the proposal came closer to passing than ever before. It cleared all committees before Dunn tabled it on the House floor. He said he just didn’t have the votes. Later, Dunn told reporters that he only had 48 “yes” votes confirmed out of the necessary 50.

“I believe there are legislators who hear from their school board that they’re against this,” Dunn reflected on Tuesday. “Instead of legislators sitting down and saying what’s best for students, it’s about what’s best for school bureaucracy.”

Research is mixed on whether vouchers help or hurt students. According to a 2015 review by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “vouchers have been neither the rousing success imagined by proponents nor the abject failure predicted by opponents.”

Undaunted, Dunn says he will sponsor voucher legislation again in the upcoming legislative session, which starts in January. But if vouchers pass this time, he said, it will be because of growing support for the program among Tennesseans, not because of Trump or DeVos.

“Education is a state issue,” he said.

changing of the guard

Will Indiana Republicans now move to make the state superintendent job appointed?

Now that a Republican is heading into the state superintendent office in January, Indiana lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — might start singing a different tune about the powers of that office.

The office has been the subject of dispute since 2012 when Democrat Glenda Ritz defeated Republican Tony Bennett in a surprise upset, becoming the only Democrat elected to statewide office.

Since then, as Ritz clashed repeatedly with Gov. Mike Pence and other GOP lawmakers,  Republicans have openly questioned the role of Indiana’s state superintendent, suggesting the job should have less power and should be appointed by the governor rather than elected.

During Ritz’s superintendency, GOP lawmakers passed a bill giving the Indiana State Board of Education the right to choose its own leader rather than having the superintendent automatically assigned as board chair.

But in the weeks since Republican Jennifer McCormick blocked Ritz’s re-election bid, the GOP resolve to limit the state superintendent’s powers seems to have diminished.

There might also be changes on the other side of the aisle, where Democrats signaled their support for a strong superintendent could waver.

At Tuesday’s legislative Organization Day, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said he’s advocated for reducing the superintendent’s power “for 30 years” but that he didn’t think he’ll make that a priority for the next legislative session beginning in January.

“I want to have a discussion with the superintendent-elect,” he said. “It’s probably not an issue for this session. Perhaps next.”

For Democrats who were in office when Indiana had Democratic governors, the question of appointing the state superintendent is a sticky one. Back then, Indiana had a Republican state superintendent and many Democrats argued the governor should appoint that position in order to have consistency in education policymaking.

But with Ritz in the role and constantly crossing swords with Pence, Democrats defended her against calls to strip power from her office.

Democratic House leader Scott Pelath of Michigan City said that’s why big changes, like taking away voters’ option to choose the state superintendent, shouldn’t be made lightly.

“On balance I think people like more choices rather than fewer at the ballot box,” he said. “I think we’ve had a system that has more or less functioned over a period of time. We shouldn’t change it without a great deal of hesitation.”

Even so, Pelath said he wasn’t necessarily opposed to making the superintendent job appointed.

“I have an open mind,” he said. “I could be convinced either way.”

With McCormick in and Ritz out, there could be a lot of second guessing on key questions about her role and her power.

Bosma was among a majority of Republicans who successfully backed a bill to change that longstanding rule, instead allowing the 11 board members to pick their own leader. Democrats opposed the change, arguing that it was a blatant attempt to take power away from the superintendent.

After fighting to give the board the option to choose someone besides the state superintendent as chair] — a right that kicks in for the first time next year —  Bosma declined to say whether he thinks the board members should simply select McCormick for the role. “I have not made a determination on that,” he said.

Pelath said he still thinks the state superintendent should chair the board, even if it’s McCormick.

“That’s one you can’t have both ways,” he said. “I support the way that it was before the attacks on Superintendent Ritz and the stripping of her abilities. If we’re going to have a state superintendent this person should be empowered to do something about education.”

Bosma said he wants to let the changes the legislature made to the state board play out.

“I think the system we put into place has worked,” he said. “Is it perfect? Probably not. We’ll let the new superintendent get her legs under herself first and get the Department of Education back on track, because I’m not sure it is right now, and let the dust settle.”