Kendra S. Johnson braved an ice storm and sold candy to cover a $60 bus fare so she could testify against a bill that would strip local control from the Gary and Muncie school districts.
After the bad weather thwarted the Gary mom’s attempt to travel more than two hours to Indianapolis for an earlier hearing on House Bill 1315, Johnson raised the money to make it for Thursday’s next step in the process.
She delivered an impassioned speech to Senate Appropriations committee members urging them to make sure parents get a chance to weigh in on a bill that will massively change how their children are educated. The committee did not vote on the bill Thursday.
Parents, community members, education advocates and others have criticized lawmakers and other policymakers for failing to include more people in coming up with solutions for the troubled Gary and Muncie districts. The lengths that Johnson went underscores how difficult it can be for community members to make their voices heard.
“A lot of times, parents feel like they don’t have people or organizations who listen to them so they can have the strength and courage to speak up,” Johnson, a mother of six, told Chalkbeat. “If you don’t go take advantage of being included, it will be taken from you.”
The bill would expand on the responsibilities of Gary’s emergency manager, allow Ball State University to take control of Muncie Schools and put in place a new system to help the state identify schools that could be on the way toward serious financial problems.
The legislation builds on last year’s Senate Bill 567, which established that the state could take over districts. This year’s bill has seen ferocious, sometimes somber, debate in the legislature. Democrats representing Gary and Muncie implored members of the Republican majority to scale the bill back to allow more time for the community to be involved.
Republicans, such as the bill’s author and House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Tim Brown, have said the financial and academic problems in the two districts warrant decisive action sooner, not later. On Thursday, Appropriations Chairman Ryan Mishler said he’d hold the bill for a vote for at least another week to allow time for discussion. The bill already passed the House, so it just needs to make it through the Senate to be on its way to becoming law.
State takeover of schools has seen mixed results. WFYI Public Media’s Eric Weddle explored that issue in a new story, while also detailing Gary Schools’ decades-long struggle to stay afloat.
Weddle spoke with Sharmayne McKinley, principal at Daniel Hale Williams Elementary Schools about what she remembers from when the state first announced the district would be taken over last year. One of emergency manager Peggy Hinckley’s first moves was to buy new books. Their previous ones were 10 years old.
“You’d have thought we were little kids in the candy store getting supplies for our kids,” McKinley says. “That was a milestone.”
Johnson, 53, who lives in the Dorie Miller Public Housing complex, represents Indiana in the National Coalition of ESEA Title I Parents and has been a parent advocate for several years now.
Because district takeover is uncharted territory in Indiana, there are many unknowns. Provisions in the bill that would make Muncie’s school board appointed and turn Gary’s into an advisory committee have elicited strong reactions from residents like Johnson who feel they’re losing their voices in their own schools.
“A lot of us don’t have the money to make the trip from Gary down here,” Johnson said. “The biggest reason I fight is so it can be said a voice was fighting for the parents, whether it was heard or not.”