Looking ahead

Funding for Indiana schools, preschool and teachers have seen major changes. Lawmakers are now taking a second look.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
House Speaker Brian Bosma presents legislative priorities for Indiana House Republicans at the beginning of the session. Bosma is the author of the bill to appoint the next state superintendent, one of this year's priorities.

In the first week of the 2017 legislative session, three education issues — school funding, preschool and teacher pay —  are already getting attention from both sides of the aisle.

Bills will continue to be released over the next week, when testing and other education issues are expected to make an appearance.

School funding

House Republicans are proposing fundamental changes in how money is distributed to school districts.

Instead of funneling all money to school and district general funds, which restrict how the money is spent, it would also be distributed to other parts of their budgets. House Speaker Brian Bosma says this proposal is designed to give schools more decision making power in how they use state money.

The House will release a budget draft in the next month or so, which will offer more details about how this plan would work, and Gov.-Elect Eric Holcomb is expected to present his budget next week.

Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said he hopes traditional public schools’ funding isn’t compromised by growing enrollment in private and charter schools.

“There are communities throughout Indiana that are seeing their school systems asphyxiated by recent changes to state funding,” Pelath said. “I’d like to hear something about the 95 percent of school-age children that are in your traditional public schools.”

Preschool

Advocates had hoped 2017 would be a year of major expansion for the state’s $10 million preschool program, but it’s becoming clear that funding will likely fall short of their expectations.

The program has provided preschool support to about 1,600 kids in five counties, but demand has far exceeded supply.

Bosma said Wednesday that significant growth probably wouldn’t be possible in a year when state revenue is forecasted to be about $300 million short of earlier projections. He has suggested expanding preschool to perhaps 10 counties for $20 million.

For the most part, Indiana Republicans agree on growing the program conservatively. On Thursday, Holcomb announced his proposal to also double the current preschool funding amount to $20 million, but he suggested keeping it within the original five counties.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane said he and his caucus have been disappointed in the modest proposals they’ve heard from Republicans.

“I can assure you there are communities around the state that have been working on this, investing in this, and know for their individual communities that this is a good thing,” Lanane said. “Far more than just 10 communities throughout the state.”

Teaching

After Republicans backed major changes to teacher pay in 2011 and 2013, legislative leaders are now saying they might need to reconsider some of them.

Just one week in, lawmakers have already proposed a number of bills dealing with teacher pay. The subject that has garnered considerable attention since news of teacher shortages sprung up in 2015.

Thursday, Bosma even acknowledged that a Republican-led effort passed in 2013 to give high-performing teachers extra pay might have been a mistake given anger over how the bonuses were meted out last month.

“I think we’re going to have to take a hard look at that,” Bosma said. “In fact, it’s received so much criticism and allegations that we disrespected teachers with this, that maybe it wasn’t such a great idea. The concept was to reward teachers that are well-rated, and some are upset that there was a disparity in this. That wasn’t our intention.”

WFYI Public Media reported that wealthy school districts received the majority of the $40 million bonus dollars. Carmel teachers received $2,422 per teacher, while those in Wayne Township saw $42 per teacher. The bonuses are based on schools’ ISTEP passing rates and graduation rates, which tend to be higher in wealthier districts. That said, most teachers across the state continued to be rated “effective” or “highly effective,” in both high- and low-performing districts.

The Indiana State Teachers Association, the largest teachers union in the state, also supports increasing teacher pay. Indiana average teacher salaries rank in the bottom half of states.

ISTA also wants lawmakers to reinstate extra pay for teachers who obtain advanced degrees and address collective bargaining rights, which have been curtailed in Indiana since 2011.

“Our future is directly linked to teacher recruitment and retention,” said ISTA President Teresa Meredith. “We need the best educators to teach our kids and bolster our schools.”

promoting choice

Betsy DeVos defends vouchers and slams AFT in her speech to conservatives

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rallied a conservative crowd in Denver on Thursday, criticizing teachers unions and local protesters and defending private-school vouchers as a way to help disadvantaged students.

“Our opponents, the defenders of the status quo, only protest those capable of implementing real change,” DeVos told members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that helps shape legislative policy across the country. “You represent real change.”

DeVos delivered the keynote speech at the ALEC meeting, where she reiterated her support for local control of schools and school choice. Citing the conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she said education should be about individual students and families, not school systems.

“Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on society. But, ‘who is society?’” DeVos asked, quoting Thatcher. “‘There is no such thing!’”

The American Federation of Teachers, she said, has exactly the opposite idea.

“Parents have seen that defenders of the status quo don’t have their kids’ interests at heart,” she said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten threw punches of her own Thursday, calling private school vouchers “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation” in a Washington, D.C. speech.

DeVos highlighted states that have introduced vouchers or new school-choice programs including North Carolina, Kentucky and Arizona. Indiana — home to the nation’s largest voucher program — also won praise.

Data from existing voucher programs may have sparked the one critical question DeVos faced, during a brief sit-down after her speech. Legislators want to know how to respond to complaints that voucher programs only help wealthy families, the moderator, an Arizona lawmaker, told DeVos.

In Indiana, for instance, vouchers are increasingly popular in wealthy school districts and among families whose students had not previously attended public school.

“I just dismiss that as a patently false argument,” DeVos said. “Wealthy people already have choice. They’re making choices every day, every year, by moving somewhere where they determine the schools are right for their children or by paying tuition if they haven’t moved somewhere.”

Earlier this year, DeVos criticized Denver as not offering enough school choice because Colorado does not have private school vouchers. Still, presenters at the conference Thursday introduced Denver to ALEC members — conservative legislators, business leaders and lobbyists — as “living proof” that charter schools and competition work.

A local Denver school board candidate, Tay Anderson, and state union leaders held a protest Wednesday ahead of DeVos’s speech. Attendees said they were concerned that ALEC’s efforts, and DeVos’s focus on vouchers and school choice, would hurt public schools.

DeVos didn’t make mention of Denver or Colorado in her speech Thursday, but she briefly referenced the protest.

“I consider the excitement a badge of honor, and so should you,” she said.

out of the running

Denver school board candidate Jo Ann Fujioka withdrawing from at-large race

PHOTO: Daniel Brenner/Special to the Denver Post
Jo Ann Fujioka, center, holds signs and participates in a song during a Rally for Health Care earlier this month.

One of three candidates vying to unseat Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien has announced that she is dropping out of the race.

Jo Ann Fujioka said in an email message to supporters this week that she’s ending her candidacy because two other candidates backed out of running with her as a three-person slate. No other candidates have dropped out of the race.

Fujioka, a former Jeffco Public Schools nurse and administrator who lives in Denver, said consultants hired by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association “pressured the other two candidates to withdraw from the slate and then informed me, ‘You bring nothing to the table.’”

Fujioka declined to name the other two candidates or the consultants. Asked about Fujioka’s withdrawal, union president Henry Roman said, “We have strong candidates in every district.”

Four seats on the seven-member Denver Public Schools board are up for election in November. All seven seats are currently held by board members who support the superintendent’s vision, which includes embracing school choice and replacing low-performing schools.

Three incumbents are running for re-election. In the fourth race, the incumbent has endorsed a candidate. Every race is now contested, and every race includes at least one candidate who disagrees with the superintendent’s vision.

Fujioka was running for the at-large seat held by O’Brien on a platform of opposing school closures and new charter schools. Fujioka said her strategy from the beginning was to form a slate of four like-minded candidates. (Until recently, only three races were contested, which is why she said the proposed slate had three members.)

The idea, she said, was that the slate would stand together against the district’s reforms, which she and others have sought to tie to the policies championed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

DeVos is best known for supporting private school vouchers, which DPS opposes.

“There’s a national anti-voucher, anti-DeVos, anti-Trump feeling,” Fujioka said. “…The fact that there are lots of activists against it, coupled with a ticket of four people saying, ‘This is what we’re railing against,’ that’s the advantage I see.”

Running individual campaigns against the incumbents would be more difficult, she said. When it became clear the slate wasn’t going to happen, Fujioka said she decided to withdraw from the race altogether — and explain her reasoning in a message to supporters, which she also posted on her website.

“It isn’t just that I quit,” she said. “That’s why I put that out there.”

O’Brien, who previously served as Colorado’s lieutenant governor for four years, responded to Fujioka’s statement with a press release saying she was disheartened to learn the reason that one of her opponents was dropping out of the race.

“Too often, women in politics find themselves facing unreasonable institutional barriers,” O’Brien said. “It’s discouraging, misguided and just plain wrong. … That a fellow progressive voice was forced to exit the race because consultants told her, ‘You bring nothing to the table,’ is more of the same that women in public service, and everywhere, have to tolerate.”

Fujioka called O’Brien’s statement “the sleaziest piece of campaign propaganda” she’d seen.

“I am appalled at Barbara hopping on this like a vulture to make it sound like she is so empathetic to my situation as a woman, when it really had nothing to do with being a woman,” Fujioka said. “Such a blatant appeal to women is shoddy at best.”

O’Brien said her statement was heartfelt.

Two other candidates confirmed that they’re still in the running against O’Brien: northwest Denver father Robert Speth, who narrowly lost an election to a school board incumbent in 2015, and former DPS teacher Julie Banuelos.

In the race for the board seat representing northeast Denver, two candidates — Tay Anderson and Jennifer Bacon — are challenging incumbent Rachele Espiritu.

In central east Denver, candidate Carrie A. Olson is challenging incumbent Mike Johnson.

And in southwest Denver, candidate Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan is challenging candidate Angela Cobian, who has been endorsed by the board member who currently holds that seat.