Chesterton Tribune


Local lawmakers hope more funds coming for schools

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New faces in the Indiana Statehouse this year signal changes but members of the Porter County Retired Teachers Association are still steadfast in their hope of seeing improvements come to public school systems.

Questions surrounding education and pension funding took up most of the association’s legislative forum at Bailly Elementary on Saturday morning attended by state Senators Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, and Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso and state Representatives Chuck Moseley, D-Portage; Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso; and House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City.

Association Vice-president Ralph Ayres, who moderated the forum, said legislators will struggle through the rest of the General Assembly setting the state budget for the next two years.

“That is really going to dominate the discussion between now and the end of April,” Ayres said to the crowd of about 90 people including Duneland, Valparaiso and Portage School officials.

From school to work

Tallian, who is the ranking minority member on the Senate’s Appropriations committee, said Governor Mike Pence’s proposed budget increases education by about $150 million, or a third of what has been cut since 2010. Pence in his State of the State Address said an increase will be given to fund full-day kindergarten and teachers’ pensions over the next two years.

With the hikes, education will take up 64 percent of expenditures in the new state budget.

Charbonneau surmised that schools are close to reaching the same level of funding that was seen in 2008, while Moseley later argued that the new figures do not factor in the state’s 2.5 percent inflation rate.

More school money will be directed to two areas this year – pre-kindergarten education for low-income children and vocational programs for those needing skills to enter the workplace, Tallian said. A proponent of funding kindergarten in the K-12 budget, Tallian told the audience she has reintroduced a bill to make kindergarten education mandatory and feels it is likely to get a hearing this year.

Meanwhile, Pelath is calling for better training programs to fill a large number of jobs unfilled because there are not enough qualified candidates for those available jobs. Giving support to the Department of Workforce Development is a way to invest in the future and build a stronger income tax base, he said.

While responding to a question posed by an audience member of whether the state would be better served without a federal department of education, Soliday said it must be realized that schools need to educate students to prepare them to compete in a world market.

Dwelling on the same question, Moseley said it comes down to lawmakers determining what should be done that would make a better student. “This is a big change we need to think through,” he said.

Pelath said he believes agencies working together rather than against each other would produce the greatest outcome. “People want cooperation in education and not competition.”

Funding formula quibbles

Soliday said it doesn’t matter by what percentage the state increases education funding; what’s more important is how it is distributed which seemed to be on the minds of audience members who submitted questions on the subject.

Soliday said the formula, as it is, primarily aids two types of schools – the urban schools in Gary and the rapidly growing such as those in suburbs of Indianapolis. Stable schools like the school corporations in Porter County, such as Chesterton High School, are the ones that see the least benefit.

“There’s got to be a new paradigm in how we get kids to graduate from high school,” Soliday said. He advised teachers to “be careful in what you advocate for” given the formula’s partialities.

Pelath expressed high hopes for Indiana’s new Superintendent of Public Instruction Democrat Glenda Ritz, whose election he believes showed the state was tired of former superintendent Tony Bennett’s experimental-type pieces of legislation and the “wild-west expansion of legislation of charter schools.” He believes people are ready to get back to arguing for the advancement of traditional public schools.

“We need to bring some good, old Hoosier sense back to education and that’s what we are trying to do,” Pelath said.

Legislation has been introduced in both the House and the Senate to repeal some of the policies imposed by Bennett, including one authored by Charbonneau.

Senate Bill 416, co-authored by Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Goshen, proposes to abolish the A to F grading system for school performance and restructure it with new criteria for state evaluation of schools based on student growth.

“It comes back to accountability and responsibility. When you’ve got a process that nobody understands, it’s wrong,” Charbonneau said.

Charbonneau added he also finds flaws in the voucher system to give state money to private schools. “We need to be biased towards a public education.”

The audience also applauded Moseley’s news that the HB 1080 to give retired teachers their “13th check” has passed favorably out of the Ways and Means committee.

What to do with that surplus?

Having a budget surplus over the past years has caused ongoing debate about whether the cuts made to get there were good decisions, but Charbonneau said he is proud of the fact the state has been a model of fiscally responsibility.

“(In) any other part of the country, they want to talk about how we are doing in Indiana,” he said.

With that surplus Pence, in his State of the State address last week and in his campaign, has proposed lowering the state income tax by 10 percent. Soliday said he and other state officials are “not in love” with that proposal.

Tallian added that the tax cuts would mean $750 million less for the budget, something that the general public isn’t “clamoring” for after seeing four years of cuts.

“Now that’s a lot of money [to lose] to give everybody back $50,” she said. “Do we restore the money to K-12 education or do we (give) tax refunds?”

Pelath said having conservative fiscal management says something about what the state’s priorities are but the state should live up to the promises it made to public schools which have not been met in terms of funding.

About Pence

In further comments about Pence as the new chief, Soliday said governors do not always get what they want, even when they are in the party of the majority.

Tallian said it is interesting being in the minority to see how “things play out” when there are disagreements between the governor and the Republicans in the House and Senate.

The change in leadership means new behavior and attitudes, Moseley said, and he anticipates there will be more communication and progress in this year’s Assembly.

“We are not Washington. We are better than that because we can work together,” Moseley said.

Pelath said each leader is “stylistically different” the contrast he sees between Pence and his predecessor Mitch Daniels is that Pence is open and clear about what he wants to get accomplished.

Acting in bipartisan fashion, Pence is working with Pelath and his Republican counterpart State Rep. Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, on something they all think is important, which is HB 1002.

The bill would create a 15-member Indiana Career Council to implement more training programs for Hoosiers to gain skills needed for available jobs. The Council would include the governor and the superintendent of public instruction, along with representatives from Family and Social Services and workforce development, Pelath said.

Lastly, Pelath said for changes to happen, legislators need to hear from their constituents on the types of things they want to see in state government. He encouraged audience members to inform their peers about issues.

“When you educate the public, the politicians will follow,” Pelath said.

Ayres wrapped up the forum saying the lawmakers present are very responsive to constituent concerns.

“They are available, they are in your community and they want to hear from you,” said Ayres.

There will be another NWI legislator forum on Saturday, Feb. 9, when the Indiana State Teachers Association hosts their legislative breakfast at Michigan City High School at 8:30 a.m., Ayres said.

Posted 1/28/2013