Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Hoosier Daddy

Russ on Reading is on the road this week, visiting my son, Bruce, and daughter-in-law, Jennie, at Indiana University in Bloomington. Bruce is studying for his MFA and Jennie is working for the university. We went to a local restaurant last night where I could not help but notice a prominent sign in the window declaring, "We Proudly Serve Everyone." The reference, of course, was to the "religious freedom" act signed into law last month by Indiana Governor Mike Pence in a closed door meeting with a group of the bill's supporters, including many of Indiana's leading opponents of gay rights.

As soon as the signing became a national scandal, of course, Pence, just one of seemingly dozens of Republicans "exploring a possible run for the presidency', started backing away from the bill, claiming disingenuously that the law wasn't meant to discriminate against gays. Pence went into full damage control mode when corporations like Angie's List started pulling up stakes and when the NCAA threatened to move the Final Four basketball competition from Indianapolis.

As much damage as Pence has inflicted on the cause of human rights here in Indiana, his negative impact on the public schools may be even greater and longer lasting.  Pence's education agenda reads like a litany of corporate education reform initiatives: destroy teacher unions, expand charter schools, expand voucher programs, and enforce the state take over of struggling schools. Pence has also waged a very public fight to wrest control of the state education policy from duly elected Superintendent of Schools, Glenda Ritz.

Indiana is one of the few states in the country where public school funding is controlled entirely at the state level. The education battles, therefore, are carried out at the state house and the governor has enormous influence over the public schools, funding and policy. Governor Pence is quite literally the Hoosier Daddy for the school children of Indiana and this daddy is not taking good care of those children.

Pence came into office hoping to continue and deepen the damage to the public schools inflicted by his predecessor, Mitch Daniels, and former schools Superintendent Tony Bennett. But a surprise was waiting for him at the end of election night as Bennett was soundly defeated by Ritz in the same election that sent Pence to the Governors's mansion. In fact, Ritz got more votes than Pence did.

The election was a clear indication that the voters were dissatisfied with the educational policies of Daniels/Bennett. But Pence wasn't going to let that stop him. He went to work to subvert democracy by stripping Ritz of power. You can read the sorry story of the Pence campaign against Ritz here and here, a campaign so transparently anti-democracy that even the heavily Republican legislature failed to follow Pence in completely removing Ritz from any significant role in education policy.

While Pence has been busy trying to find ways to work around Glenda Ritz, he has also been pushing for an expanded state commitment to charter schools and vouchers. Indiana has had charters for sometime, so Pence's push must be driven by evidence of success, right? Not so much.

WTHR TV in Indianapolis reported in late 2014 that more than half of Indiana's charters are failing or doing poorly. The low scores may or may not have been the result of Tony Bennett no longer being around to manipulate the grades of favored charters, or the scores may be indicative of the overall failure of charters to improve teaching and learning. Bennett resigned his new position as Florida's Superintendent of Schools when the release of emails from Indiana showed he had manipulated the grades of some charters. Whatever the reason, the performance of charters in Indiana does not inspire confidence or make the case for expansion of charter programs.

Under Governors Daniels and Pence, Indiana has become the state with the most rapidly expanding voucher program in the country and in his latest budget proposal Pence seeks expansion of the program.  This expansion is, of course, disastrous for public schools and for Indiana's school children. The expansion of vouchers in the state has shown an increase in the number of white children using vouchers and a decrease in use by the supposed targets of vouchers, African-American and Latino children. Vouchers in Indiana offer most parents a false choice. They are a choice between well-funded, well-resourced public schools and handouts to private schools and middle class parents. And all of this yielding no appreciable improvement in student learning. Even the reformy minded Arne Duncan and President Obama oppose vouchers because they recognize they lead to the destruction of the public schools where 95% of students go.

Fortunately, the parents and teachers of Indiana are not taking this lying down. They have dared to talk back to their Hoosier Daddy. At the farmers market in Bloomington on Saturday I ran into parent, activist and public education hero, Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer, manning (personning?) a booth for the Indiana Coalition for Public Education (ICPE). Cathy chairs the Monroe county chapter of ICPE and was in the booth despite the fact that one of her children was graduating from the local public high school that afternoon. Cathy made national headlines in February with her self-styled "rant" about Governor Pence's insane education policies. Here is just some of what Cathy said:

My child is not college and career ready because he is a child. A test does not begin to sum up what I want for him. I trust teachers. I believe in public education because I believe that every single child regardless of background should have the same opportunity to a free, high quality public education as it states in our Indiana constitution. I believe that accountability means:

Every child should have a school that has enough nurses, social workers, guidance counselors, gym teachers, art teachers, music teachers, librarians, small class sizes, electives, hands-on projects, science experiments, theater, band. Every child. But instead our schools are being strangled. They are jumping through hoops where every. single. thing. is. tied. to. a. score. And the purpose is money.

Thanks to people like Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer and many others, there is hope on the way in Indiana. In the farmer's market, Cathy was excitedly talking about the very real possibility that State Superintendent Glenda Ritz will run against Hoosier Daddy Pence in the 2016 gubernatorial election. That is the same Glenda Ritz who got more votes than Pence in the last election. The same Glenda Ritz, public school teacher and media specialist, who Pence has tried to strip of any meaningful role in her duly elected position. 

According to Diane Ravitch, Ritz is expected to announce she is running for governor at a press conference on June 5th. When that happens, parents and teachers in Indiana will have another opportunity for a referendum on public education. Indiana will become ground zero for the battle against coprporate education reform. All of us need to get behind this effort and provide whatever support we can to this cause.

It would be glorious indeed, if after the 2016 election, Glenda Ritz can make a phone call to  Mike Pence and ask, "Hoosier Daddy?"

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