News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Indiana Legislature

November 15, 2011

Changes not over, Bennett declares

ISTA president counters school chief

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana schools chief Tony Bennett kicked off a statewide conference on education reform with this warning: Brace yourself for more to come.

As part of a panel discussion Monday on the contentious education legislation passed by state lawmakers earlier this year, Bennett predicted more heated debate will soon ensue over how Indiana spends its limited education dollars.

“Anyone who believes education reform is finished and that there won’t be more difficult discussions ahead is sadly mistaken,” Bennett told an audience of of about 800 educators, policy makers and business leaders.

The elected state Superintendent of Public Instruction didn’t elaborate on details of the reforms that may come on the heels of sweeping legislation that overhauled the state’s school funding formula and wiped out teacher tenure.

But he said Indiana’s cash-strapped K-12 schools will have to shift their spending priorities to meet new standards for student achievement, teacher merit pay, and a growing demand to better prepare students for college and the workforce.

Bennett said anyone expecting more state dollars any time soon for education spending was “fooling‚” themselves.

His comments, made at the opening session of an annual education conference sponsored the University of Indianapolis, drew a negative response from a fellow panel member: a teachers’ union president who said the sweeping education reforms already in place have left his members demoralized.

“Teachers do feel villified,” said Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “And they feel public education has been a whipping boy for everything that people think is wrong with society today.”

In a wide-ranging discussion on the legislation that pushed Indiana to the forefront of a national discussion on education reform, the superintendent of one of the state’s largest public school district also weighed in.

Wendy Robinson, who heads the 32,000-student Fort Wayne Community Schools district, said teachers and administrators alike needed to stop fighting education reform and instead needed to start fighting to make it work in their schools and classrooms.

She said educators who defend the old status quo may need to get out of the profession. “There were no ‘good old days’ for all our children,” Robinson said. “There were only ‘good old days’ for some of our children. ... A lot of children were not doing well.”

Robinson said a major challenge she now faces is instituting the new teacher evaluation requirement that links teacher pay to student performance.

Robinson said teachers in her district with 30-plus years of teaching experience are retiring rather than subjecting themselves to an evaluation process that she said is still evolving.

Also on the panel was Mark Gerstle, vice president of community relations at Cummins Inc., a Fortune 500 company based in Indiana with a global workforce of 40,000. He said Indiana’s schools aren’t producing enough students with the science and engineering know-how that his company requires.

The result, he said, was that more than 35 percent of the company’s workforce at its Columbus, Ind., headquarters come from outside the U.S.

“We have thousands of jobs that are available,” said Gerstle, “but they're not being filled with people from Indiana.” 

Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau chief for the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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