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Another dark day for Indiana's public schools

If the defeat of Superintendent Tony Bennett last Nov. 6 was a high point for public education supporters in Indiana, Feb. 19 might go down as a low point. There have been plenty of those in the past four or five years, but today's House Education Committee meeting contributed mightily to the assault on teachers and public schools.

Rep. Kreg Battles, a Vincennes Democrat who teaches high school chemistry, said committee members received notice about 7 p.m. Monday of proposed amendments to House bills. One, moving oversight of the voucher program from the Department of Education to the Office of Management and Budget, amounts to a strip-and-insert maneuver on a bill (the better to advance unpopular legislation).

"No matter how you paint this, this is a pretty obvious power grab of Superintendent Glenda Ritz's authority," Battles said.

It's particularly troubling, he said, because Ritz has made considerable effort to cooperate and collaborate with GOP officials, including Gov. Mike Pence. But Marilee Springer, Pence's senior policy director, testified today in support of moving the voucher program from Ritz's department to the OMB, overseen by the governor.

Another measure approved on party lines casts a blow on the state teacher unions, already battered by anti-collective bargaining laws approved two years ago. The latest measure prohibits school districts from allowing voluntary payroll deductions for union dues.

Battles described both measures as "solutions in search of a problem."

No local school district officials spoke in support of the dues amendment. They currently deduct annuity payments, United Way contributions, pension payments and more from teacher paychecks. The bill would not affect those deductions.

Battles said the dues measure was another affront to local control. School districts currently have the authority to refuse to deduct dues payments, but the bill would prohibit them from doing so.

"Why would we, as a state body, enter the fray once again to tell locals what they can and cannot do?" Battles asked.

"These measures are clearly politically motivated. We're not fooling anyone," he said. "This is political and it will fly through the supermajority Republican House."

Battles said he hopes that Sen. Dennis Kruse, chairman of the Senate education panel, and Sen. Luke Kenley, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, will resist. Kruse said in an earlier meeting that he would not entertain bills that take authority from Ritz, while Kenley has questioned voucher expansion efforts.

The actions by House Republicans, however, make it increasingly difficult for them to claim that the education bills are "all about the kids." If that's the case, why move administration of the voucher program from the Department of Education to a fiscal agency?

Here's why: Authors of Indiana's voucher law don't want taxpayers to find out that some of the money is going, with virtually no oversight, to poor-performing schools.

Taking the voucher program from Ritz's department wasn't intended to ensure faithful administration of the program. The newly elected superintendent is following the letter of the law. But voucher advocates don't want to allow Ritz access to information that threatens their efforts to expand the entitlement program, close down more public schools and eliminate more union jobs.

That's why Feb. 19 should go down as another low point for public education in Indiana.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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