by Colleen Flaherty
Newly elected Indiana Gov. Mike Pence delivered his State of the State in Indianapolis Tuesday evening. While most of his education proposals were vague, Pence did put front and center a promise to his anti-public education supporters: expand the state’s school voucher program, draining money from underfunded public schools for private and religious schools that are not accountable to taxpayers and exempt from state and local education standards.
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Said Teresa Meredith, elementary school educator and vice president of the Indiana State Teachers Association:
We haven’t even waited for data to be collected on the current voucher program, and they’re already talking about expanding it. Vouchers are continuing to cripple our public education system by draining funds away from programs and from schools for those who need it the most.
Currently, Indiana provides anywhere from $2,500 to $7,500 per year to students who meet the income guidelines and who have spent at least one year in a public school. Pence wants to get rid of income guidelines for certain students, such as children of veterans and those with special needs, and do away with the public school attendance requirement altogether.
In 2012, 9,324 students received vouchers, up from 3,919 when the program began two years ago. There were 7,500 vouchers available in the program’s first year. That amount doubled this school year, and that cap disappears in 2013-14.
Pence also proposed an increase in education funding, but, said Meredith, “It’s just a drop in the bucket.”
Pence’s budget proposal includes an increase of one percent per year for K-12 funding. However, it won’t cover the $300 million carved out of the education budget in the last two years. Even some state lawmakers in Pence’s own party, state House Republicans, want an increase in education funding.
Pence also intends to increase funding for the teacher and school evaluation program, which would allocate more money for high performing schools and reward teachers based only on the improvement of their students on a high-stakes test. Pence wants to spend an extra $64 million specifically for high performing schools.
“He wants that funding to go to the highest performing schools and what he considers the best teachers,” said Meredith. “Once again, the programs and the opportunities that need to be there for our most impoverished children and our most challenged schools, he’s not looking at ways to support those schools or those students in any way.”
Meredith adds that in the past few years, many teachers have retired early or left the profession due to the added pressures of high stakes evaluation.
“Teachers are really feeling the stress. We’re hearing about teachers around the state that are on medication because they can’t handle the stress brought on by the evaluation model. We’re really hoping the current administration can bring some kind of common sense to the teacher evaluation discussion and make teachers feel less threatened from day one.”
Meredith was also disappointed that while Pence outlined his plans for education, he didn’t mention newly elected state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, former state Teacher of the Year and fierce advocate for public schools.
“He didn’t extend any olive branch to Ritz. I would love to have heard him say publicly, ‘Let’s start with our common ground and then continue to improve education in Indiana from there.’ He didn’t do it. I feel really let down as a citizen of the state.”
Still, Meredith feels hopeful that educators and students have such a strong public education advocate fighting for them.
“I believe Superintendent Ritz and her staff are already exhibiting tremendous openness to conversation. I’m encouraged by the attitude they have about the professionals who are in our schools everyday doing their jobs.”