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Indiana Sen. Minority Leader Tim Lanane, Senate President David Long, House Speaker Brian Bosma and House Minority Leader Scott Pelath (left to right, back row)  at a special legislative corrections session last year.

Indiana Sen. Minority Leader Tim Lanane, Senate President David Long, House Speaker Brian Bosma and House Minority Leader Scott Pelath (left to right, back row) at a special legislative corrections session last year.

Pence’s 2015 education plans on funding, flexibility raise questions

Gov. Mike Pence’s plan for an “education session” of the Indiana General Assembly in 2015 won’t just be about his ongoing battle with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

Pence’s made waves with his bombshell announcement Thursday that he would dissolve the Center for Education and Career Innovation and ask lawmakers to reconsider Ritz’s leadership post on the Indiana State Board of Education.

But the rest of the education agenda that dominated his speech contained a half-dozen major new proposals to overhaul Indiana’s system of school finance, again expand access to charter schools, provide more money for private school tuition vouchers and add a new program he called “freedom to teach,” giving the state board authority to grant waivers from some state regulations to school districts that want to try innovative ways to “focus resources on student learning.”

Republican legislative leaders, who announced their own education priorities in October, said Pence’s ideas would be added to their discussions.

“We will review his proposals and many others fully in the legislative process, making sure that they are the right choices for Hoosier children,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis. “I am especially appreciative of the governor’s executive order to dissolve the Center for Education and Career Innovation and hope that this decision will begin to address the discord we have experienced in education governance at the highest levels.”

Making up almost two-thirds of the state’s budget, education funding will be center stage in 2015, with questions about what constitutes “fairness” for urban, suburban and rural school districts being a focus for the state’s Republican lawmakers.

Speaking on a panel at the annual legislative conference, Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, said fair doesn’t necessarily mean equal funding amounts for every student in every school district. If Republicans push for more equal funding between wealthy and poor districts, he said, it will take money away from the schools need it most because poor districts in the state receive extra aid to educate children who come to school with more barriers to learning.

“To them, it’s money following the child,” Porter said of his Republican colleagues. “Well you know, if I’m a millionaire, I have money following me, but I don’t really need it.”

But Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, argued that parents in wealthier and suburban school districts pay taxes, too, and their kids’ schools deserve a more equal cut.

“All students are important,” Brown said. “And we want to raise the support substantially for all students in the state of Indiana to have an education opportunity.”

One change Pence proposed was an increase in “performance funding” — a way to reward schools with extra dollars for successes such as increased test scores, strong graduation rates, high ratings for teachers and A or B accountability grades. Brown said legislators are still discussing how the formula might change to include performance as a bigger factor.

“We had $30 million in the last budget in performance funding,” Brown said. “We’ll have to look at it if we want that amount, another amount or what the parameters will be so that you’ll be able to get performance funding. It’s a potential increase for schools who are doing a great job.”

Senate Democratic leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, was skeptical about the need for performance to drive a larger portion of school funding, especially since he said he hears so often from teachers that they feel their hands are tied by so many standardized tests.

“We need to take a time out and just see how valid these measures are,” Lanane said. “At the end of the day, the question is what are the kids learning? Are they learning more than they did before we had all this comprehensive testing? I’m not sure that’s the case.”

Lanane also took issue with Pence’s “freedom to teach” program, saying the state should trust teachers and give them freedom from tests instead. He thinks the real goal might be to allow districts a way around union contract rules.

“I hope this isn’t just another fancy way of saying we want to limit the rights of teachers to collectively bargain,” Lanane said.

House Democratic leader Rep. Scott Pelath of Michigan City said Pence’s proposal has a nice name, but it would have ill effects on teachers.

“‘Freedom to teach’ — those are just words,” Pelath said. “Those are words that were dreamed up in some think tank with pollsters sitting by their sides. That’s not about freedom to teach, it’s about deconstructing and deregulating schools to the point where they don’t matter anymore, and that’s what the goal is.”

A performance-based funding formula could have broad implications for Indianapolis Public Schools, where more of its schools earn F’s rather than A’s from the state.

But Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who has already backed Pence’s plan for “transformation zone” turnaround efforts, complimented Pence’s agenda.

“Gov. Pence is pushing for bold strides in education,” Ferebee said. “We know all students are capable of excellence, and it’s time we all work together to ensure the greatest opportunities for success. As our governor introduces more initiatives to positively impact our public schools, IPS is now better positioned to lead our own transformation.”

Public school activists were decidedly less enthusiastic.

Phyllis Bush, a retired teacher and cofounder of the Northeast Friends of Public Education, said she is skeptical.

“This seems like an outright push to focus on merit pay, voucher expansion and charter school expansion,” she said. “Since Gov. Pence gave no specifics on costs, and since he cited no research on the effectiveness of these plans, this seems like one more blow to public schools in Indiana.”