Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

February 27, 2011

A conversation with Bennett on education reform

State superintendent says aggressive agenda in students’ best interest.

By Danielle Rush
Tribune staff writer

Kokomo — While State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett is pushing for aggressive reform of Indiana’s schools, he does not see a state full of failing schools.

“I would tell you we have some great schools in this state. We have some school leaders who are trying to do some great things. ... This legislation is not because Indiana schools are bad, it’s because we must add the structures to enable our system of schools in this state to grow to meet the needs of a very changing economy.”

Bennett and Gov. Mitch Daniels’ education agenda includes expanding charter schools, offering vouchers for parents to send their children to private school, merit pay for teachers and limited collective bargaining between teachers and school corporations.

Teachers have protested many of the reforms, saying they punish teachers and do not improve schools for children.

The Kokomo Tribune asked Bennett about the many concerns raised by Kokomo-area teachers.

Private school vouchers

One of the areas of greatest contention has been taxpayer-funded vouchers for parents to send their children to private schools.

Superintendents Tracy Caddell from Eastern, Doug Arnold from Maconaquah and John Bevan from Southeastern all said they think giving public money to private schools is wrong.

Caddell said the money given, which would not be the full amount the public school would receive for that child, would most likely not be enough to pay private-school tuition, and many parents would not be able to transport their children to a private school.

He also said he would be fine with vouchers if public schools were fully funded and the state was also funding full-day kindergarten.

Taylor Superintendent John Magers said the competition could be a good thing, as long as the all schools compete on a level playing field, each having the same expectations for performance.

Bennett said private schools that accept vouchers would have to agree that their students will take the ISTEP state assessment, and those school will be assigned a letter grade for performance, just as public schools are.

He said the private schools may still choose which students to accept, but “they cannot have higher standards for students who accept the vouchers than they have for students who do not get vouchers.”

Bennett said the vouchers would be available only to students who have been in a public school at least two semesters.

“One of the things we are trying to do is say public schools should have the first chance at serving children. If parents do not feel their children are getting the service they need, then they could take a voucher and attend a public school.”

He said the bill is not meant to say that public schools are failing, but that they are not able to meet the needs of some children.

Even in high-performing schools, Bennett said, there are children whose needs are not being met in that district.

The voucher bill was supposed to pass the Indiana House of Representatives by Friday to stay alive, but it was in jeopardy because of minority Democrats fleeing to Illinois. The move was to prevent a vote on certain legislation, including the right-to-work bill, according to The Associated Press.

Lauren Auld, Bennett’s press secretary, said Bennett did not pursue full-day kindergarten or making kindergarten mandatory because of the cost.

“Given across-the-board belt-tightening, the agenda focuses on improving what we have, rather than spending on new programming. If the economy was in the right place and we had the funding, he would support mandatory kindergarten.”

Charter schools

The proposed expansion of charter schools has also been rebuked by teachers, who say those institutions are not proven to help students.

Kokomo-Center fifth-grade teacher Cheryl Simmons said data shows that of the 25 lowest-performing schools on the third-grade ISTEP test, 21 were charter schools.

Bennett said current charter school rules do not have the level of accountability needed, and the proposed legislation would create more accountability, “so the options we provide are quality options.”

He said some charter schools are doing well, and the scores Simmons referred to should be examined in terms of improvement, not just raw data.

He said charter schools would be under the same accountability rules and receive a letter grade, just like public schools.

Bennett thinks the competition will keep public schools focused on improvement.

“I think they know the state is serious about competition. If I’m going to open a charter school, I’m not going to open one near places that are doing great things with kids.”

Bennett said he does not expect to see charter school expansion in the Kokomo area. He pointed to Taylor’s New Tech high school as an example of innovative programs being implemented in the area.

“I think we will see charter schools incubate where student demand is high,” he said.

One of the tenants of charter schools is they are free from many regulations public schools face. Bennett said another casualty of the Democrats’ walkout is a bill asking for a waiver process for schools to waive some of their restrictions.

Merit pay

The idea of merit pay has come under fire by protesting teachers. The proposal would provide larger raises to the highest-performing students, under a new evaluation system that includes student performance data.

Kim Patterson, an Eastern High School teacher, worries it will hinder teachers’ ability to work as a team, because they are competing with one another for raises.

Bennett said the current system, in which raises are based on years of experience and degrees earned, treats teachers as second-class citizens.

“I think the sad thing about our current system, it has set up a culture that the best financial day of a teacher’s life is the day that teacher retires. We want to recognize and reward our greatest teachers. You do nothing but uphold the nobility of our profession when you help those who want to get better get better, when you have a system that effectively and humanely helps folks find new careers if they are not fit to teach. There is nothing more noble than to do those things.”

He said the state is providing guidelines to schools for evaluation, and allowing each district to determine within those guidelines how to evaluate teachers.

Teachers have asked how growth will be determined for teachers in subjects not tested by ISTEP, or in grade levels that do not take the test.

Bennett said schools will be able to determine, for example, what makes an effective kindergarten teacher, or an effective Spanish teacher, and use those parameters.

Teachers have also questioned the fairness of using test score data, because not all students come in at grade level, and teachers don’t have classes of equal ability.

Bennett said Arne Duncan, federal education secretary, is promoting measuring student growth in evaluations.

He said he understands the fears of those in education with all the proposed changes, but that change is needed.

“This is going to change the landscape of Indiana public education that has existed for many, many years. These are structures we need to change, that haven’t been changed during a period of time the economy has changed.

“I understand there is some fear. The fact is, we have reached a point in our state history we have to put these things on the front burner. We have to say the fear will not paralyze us. It will motivate us to implement the kinds of changes we need.”

• Danielle Rush is the Kokomo Tribune education reporter. She can be reached at 765-454-8585 or danielle.rush@kokomotribune.com.