The Education Debate Which Never Happened
by Donovan Wheeler
photos by Thomas F. Yeiser
and Jonathan Alan Balash
When I sat down to write this feature, I planned a back-and-forth under one central, umbrella question: Has the Daniels/Pence/Bennett ed-reform master plan actually worked? Kim Fidler was willing to spend more than an hour explaining why it hasn’t. Bill Breeden needed a single word: “No.”
And the GOP? The first night I reached out to them via Facebook, Jim Baird’s staff (Indiana House #44) told me they would contact me via email. They never did. Bob Heaton’s staff (Indiana House #46) never replied at all. Days later, Emily Gaylord, the Indiana House’s GOP caucus spokesperson, asked me for whom I was writing, what I was writing about, and then informed me that she would call me back in 24 hours. That was three weeks ago. In the interim, my repeated email requests immediately reply with automatic messages thanking me, telling me how important my concerns and ideas are for the community, and promising to “ensure a timely response.” No response has come.
So, rather than the in-depth back-and-forth I had planned, I present to you a pair of interviews with two challengers to the GOP super-majority currently running the state of Indiana. I won’t gloss over our stance on the issue. Given that this magazine’s contributors include two college professors, four current and/or retired public school teachers, a newspaper publisher with a progressive bent, and (at the moment) a lone conservative voice, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we’re inclined to defend our day-jobs with impassioned vigor. That said, a lengthy debate…an honest discussion…a balanced assessment of the central question posted above would have been wonderful. And for the sake of the democratic ideal, it would have been necessary, too.
Interview #1—Kim Fidler—Democratic Challenger: Indiana House District 44
Way down the ballot, Kim Fidler fights a battle—a small chapter in a much larger war. At stake for her is time: hours and weeks and days attending “cracker barrel” sessions and poorly attended debates (sometimes her opponent shows up, sometimes he doesn’t). Also at stake is money…but not a lot…not by modern election standards, anyway. But what’s most on the line are the ideas. The values. Things we always say we care a lot about…unless they interfere with something that we personally want. At stop after stop, an impassioned Fidler makes it clear that Hoosiers value–and deserve–a fair opportunity to make it on their own. Sure, it sounds a lot like the sort of line you’d hear a Republican say, but for Fidler the notion of equal opportunity…of a fair starting point for each person to make it or not based on their own skills and talents…that begins with a public education. According to Fidler her opponent, three-term Indiana House Representative James Baird, has spent the last six years systematically voting the public schools into oblivion.
“Two years ago,” Fidler tells me, “when I questioned him at a public meeting, he said to me: ‘The public must like what I’m doing because I’m running unopposed.’ So, I looked at him, and I said, ‘You won’t be next time.'”
“What happened was that the General Assembly and the governor circumvented public input by shrinking small school budgets so much that…look what’s happened here. Reelsville? Closed. Dugger schools in Sullivan County? Shut down.”
Donovan Wheeler: What was the problem with public education before reforms began?
Kim Fidler: “I don’t believe there was a problem. I do believe that there has been a long-running effort to privatize education, and it grew legs in Indiana under Mitch Daniels. So, today when we look at organizations such as ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council) what we see is that they have a group whose job is to write bills. It doesn’t have anything to do with the people in this area, or what they need.”
DW: The presumption is that, since enacting the Daniels reforms, it’s now much easier to remove bad teachers. So what have we found since then?
KF: “This GOP argument that our schools are bad because we have all of these terrible teachers didn’t even pan out under their own labels…under their own plan. A vast majority of teachers earned ‘effective’ or ‘highly effective’ ratings. We’re talking one-percent, or less, who fell below that. So the GOP says, ‘Oh, this is because the evaluators aren’t evaluating correctly.’ But that’s not what’s going on.”
DW: What is going on?
KF: “The best example comes from a school where I’ve been working as a negotiator. At this school, we have seriously been talking about eliminating the SLO’s [Student Learning Objectives…basically buzzwords for teacher evaluations], but several teachers were actually upset about getting rid of them because they had figured out how to set them up so that they couldn’t fail.”
DW: If the central evaluation tool is something which teachers have learned to manipulate to their favor, what does that say about the entire reform process the Daniels era ushered in?
KF: “It says that it’s all ridiculous. It’s reduced everyone to little hamsters on the wheel. So everyone keeps spinning their wheel, doing what they have to do in order to not fall off. It’s game. It’s a game in every respect.”
DW: Do you think this is the reason for the much-reported teacher shortage?
KF: “I don’t think the shortage stems from the evaluation system—because as I’ve said, there aren’t very many who fall into those low-performing spots. The shortage comes from the massive increase in paperwork…the bureaucratic mass of data you have to produce to ‘prove’ you’re an effective teacher. Then throw in the impact of using test scores as well as the A-F school ratings…things which teachers have no control over, and you can see that a lot of people who would have considered going into teaching are instead saying, ‘No thanks.’”
DW: And what about teacher licensing? In my case, I think the reforms have made renewing my license much easier. Under the old system, I had to complete two university-level courses every five years as a form of professional development. But this last go-around, I listed a series of conferences, workshops, and things of that sort and found myself signed off for a 10-year renewal. That part of the process has seemed much easier since the reforms have been implemented.
KF: “For someone in your position that’s the case. But for many people trying to earn licenses to enter the profession, the qualification testing has made it much more difficult. The problem is that many of these people are getting snagged over material which they won’t even be teaching such as English teachers getting rejected because their advanced math isn’t high enough.
DW: But the passage late last year of the Every Student Succeeds Act may change much of this, right?
KF: “The awesome thing about that law is that we now have more flexibility within the states than ever. But the horrible part about it in Indiana is that our legislators aren’t going to want to use the flexibility in a good way.”
DW: But Glenda Ritz could use her position to effect some changes with the new law.
KF: “She could, but I think that, unless we get a new legislature, her hands are going to be tied as they were for much of the past four years.”
DW: But in the wake of the law, the state is getting rid of ISTEP. So that’s a good thing.
KF: “ISTEP is going away in 2017. And there was a summer committee which looked at this. They even considered not replacing it with anything. We spend millions of dollars on testing and remediation, so why not scrap it? Why not move that money back to the classroom and let individual teachers measure and assess their students? But that’s not going to be the intent on the part of the GOP.”
DW: What is their intent?
KF: “They’re going to wait out this next election, see if they still have their super-majority, and then they’re going to slam everyone with all the things they have wanted to do, anyway. This has been a delay tactic. They got rid of ISTEP fully aware that everyone is angry…everyone is tired of the over-testing of their kids. But this is not about helping or fixing the situation, this is about biding their time until the election passes.”
“There was a bill submitted which didn’t go anywhere this time around, but it talked about implementing vouchers for schools with fewer than 10 employees. This is a back-door move to fund home-schools. If I’m a single mom living on government assistance, why would I not keep my kids home and put them in front of a computer for an additional $6,000 each?”
DW: So is that why in general GOP candidates are staying away from debates and cracker barrel sessions?
DW: In your opinion, how have these reforms affected school communities here in Western Indiana?
KF: “Here’s where I see happening, more and more…it’s recent, but it’s starting to happen more often: When the Kernan-Shepherd Report came out in 2007 one of their recommendations was that schools with enrollments below 5,000 students should consolidate. When small communities and school districts read this they thought, ‘Well, okay…we’ll fight that in the ballot box in the form of a referendum. Name a small community that’s going to willingly vote away their local school.’”
KF: “What happened was that the General Assembly and the governor circumvented that hurdle by shrinking small school budgets so much that…look what’s happened here. Reelsville? Closed. Dugger schools in Sullivan County? Shut down.”
DW: Then what happens?
KF: “Once these schools are closed, the parents and community members are so desperate to have those schools back that they’ll do anything…including opening a charter. So we close these buildings, the community gets together and buys them from the school corporation for one dollar, and then the school corporation is responsible for maintaining that building. Even the most die-hard public education people will turn on the system if it means bringing back a school to their community.”
DW: Wait a minute… You’re saying that if Greencastle closed, I could buy it for a buck, get a voucher sponsor, open it as a charter or a private school, collect the voucher money for each student, and then the Greencastle school corporation has to pay my electric bill?
KF: “Whatever they need you to do. Yes.”
DW: What other crazy ideas are on the table?
KF: “There was a bill submitted which didn’t go anywhere this time around, but it talked about implementing vouchers for schools with fewer than 10 employees. This is a back-door move to fund home-schools. If I’m a single mom living on government assistance, why would I not keep my kids home and put them in front of a computer for an additional $6,000 each? There was even a move to have those vouchers done in the manner of a health savings account.”
DW: What do you say when someone replies that maybe home-schooling should be a valid option?
KF: “Some people can probably do a fine job with their children. But among the most knowledgeable and talented home-school teachers out there, how many are going to know six, or seven, or eight core subjects at the levels required as their children approach high school graduation?
DW: I’m not sure most parents or people think about home-schooling that way. Why do you think people opt to teach their children at home?
KF: “Most of the time I see it play out this way: people get upset—usually when their kids are in middle school—and they pull them out. They work with them for six months…maybe a year. But eventually those kids come back, and when they do they are very far behind. And not only does the school suffer—because this child’s weak test scores now count against the school—but the child suffers too because she has to work that much harder to catch up.”
DW: What do you see as the future of school funding?
KF: “The old format where each school is granted an allotment which they put in their general fund is going to go by the wayside. Replacing that will be a system where schools compete for funds, according to rules set up by the state. And we’re seeing that in the form of these forced consolidations. So, the traditional idea we have of charter schools, that’s also going to pass—those aren’t even doing very well, anyway. What’s going to replace them are these individual “school scholarships” (i.e. vouchers) which schools will compete for.”
DW: Where do you think the public pulse is on education reform? We know where it was in 2010, but what about now?
KF: “People are tired of not getting a response…of being blown off…of the condescension. Our current legislators are very much like that, to the point where—when you challenge them—they’re rude. They will say, ‘You just need to be quiet and keep your opinions to yourself.’ I’ve heard representatives say that to people in the audiences. One legislator—someone I really like, by the way—said five times in one legislative session: ‘Well, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.’ Agree to disagree? Really? These are the people you’re representing, and they’re showing up in huge numbers, and they’re all furious. You don’t ‘disagree’ with that, you represent it.”
DW: Where should education fall in the slate of state government responsibilities?
KF: “It’s always first, because whatever else is going on—economy-wise and so forth—it’s about education. If you’re trying to lure new businesses to the state, and the school in your town is rated an ‘F…’ Who’s going to go there? Families aren’t going to bring their kids there, so from an economic standpoint, the A-F rating system is just ridiculous. It just kills your economy.”
DW: But the reformers claim the letter grades are necessary to determine which schools are superior.
KF: “But we don’t even know to what degree the letter-grade system works. There’s no transparency. And then you have the Christel House controversy, where a charter school got its grade changed because they were a large contributor to Tony Bennett…you put all of that together, and the system is so undermined and opaque, I don’t see how you can trust it. Even within one building in a given school corporation, what you do see? One year they’re an ‘A’ and the next year they’re a ‘D’ and the year after that they’re a ‘B.’ But they don’t do anything differently. Sure, they form committees, spend hours writing ‘improvement plans,’ but in the real world, they’re not doing anything differently.”
DW: Were these the sort of things which prompted you to run?
KF: “The reason why I decided to run is because I was so aggravated with the ridiculousness. And all of this will only get worse if we still have a super-majority after November. There are some really, really bad laws that are coming. Some of them they tried to shove through in the last session, but shelved them. They’re letting everyone think those laws are dead, but they’re not. They’re coming. If the GOP keeps their super-majority , they’re going to read that as ‘We don’t have enough people who are angry at us to stop.’”
DW: And what if that happens?
KF: “In my case, this is very hard district for a Democrat. I have to be realistic about that. If I don’t win, then that will be it for me. I won’t do this again because I’ve put so much time and money and…everything…into this. But I also know that people around here are angry because they don’t get anything from my opponent. So I have to believe that people know that, if I get elected, I’m not going to go to Indianapolis, sit quietly, and do as I’m told like Jim Baird does. They’ll probably have to kick me out a few times because I get so mad about things. So many good people have been negatively affected by the legislation which has come our way. Whether you’re a majority or minority legislator, you have an obligation to speak up when something seems wrong for your constituents. I have never been the kind of person to sit down and keep quiet. And as long as I’m not crude, or cursing, or something like that, then I’m going to be vocal. I won’t be a person who is controllable, and I think we need a little more of that. I basically feel as if I don’t have anything to lose.”
“Here we are paying tax dollars to schools, and our agenda is being set by a bunch of men who reject science and try to manage how women live their lives. You ask them about Climate Change, and they’ll tell you they’re not scientists; you ask them about reproductive rights, and they all want to be gynecologists.”
Interview #2—Bill Breeden—Democratic Challenger: Indiana House District 46
In a revised edition of his famous A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn said of Spencer, Indiana resident Bill Breeden: “[He remains] the only person to be imprisoned as a result of the Iran-Contra affair.” It’s a distinction Breeden earned in the late 1980’s when he cut down the street sign named after fellow Odon, Indiana native John Poindexter—famous for his role in the Iran-Contra Scandal. Holding the sign “hostage” for a “ransom” of $30 million (equal to the amount given to the Contras), Breeden reportedly spent four days in jail for the offense.
When Breeden spoke to me of his inclusion in Zinn’s controversial masterwork, he did so with pride, which is hardly surprising. It only takes a short conversation to see that he is everything his historical footnote implies: Intelligent, eclectic, independent, opinionated, vocal…all of that. When the state Democratic Party, for example, told him he had to cut his hair and mainstream his appearance, he refused. And when voters in the Hoosier state’s 46th district cast their ballots next month, Breeden wants people to see that thumb in the establishment’s eye as sign of his willingness to think on his own, a quality he believes runs in short supply among the current members of the General Assembly. As our discussion below reveals, it didn’t take the Democratic challenger long to move from a single issue to the much larger and more systemic problem in state government.
DW: What’s your position on the role that state government should play in education?
BB: “The state government’s responsibility is to provide funds for education to meet the constitutional requirement to provide an equal education for every child. The government should work with school boards and educators to create an agenda, and it’s particularly Glenda Ritz—since she’s the elected official who is supposed to take on this task—who should be doing that.”
DW: And standardized testing?
BB: “As for the role of standardized testing…that’s a money-making deal which has nothing to do with education. If we were serious about making improvements to education we would be looking at the Scandinavian model, where children don’t even take these tests until the ninth grade. And when I was growing up we took tests designed by teachers, and they were the ones who measured whether we were developing and getting a fairly balanced view of the world we live in. And you can’t do that with binary codes.”
DW: So what do you say to arguments that charter schools are being implemented to do just that because public schools have not?
BB: “Charter schools are the corporatization of America, and education is just one of those things that’s part of their bigger plan. They want to privatize the roads. They want to privatize Social Security. They want to privatize everything, and while in one sense education is no different, in another it’s not.”
DW: What do you mean?
BB: “With schools, the issue isn’t merely ‘privatization,’ it’s also ‘religionization.’ Here we are paying tax dollars to schools, and our agenda is being set by a bunch of men who reject science and try to manage how women live their lives. You ask them about Climate Change, and they’ll tell you they’re not scientists; you ask them about reproductive rights, and they all want to be gynecologists. You have a political party which has moved so far to the right that they want to take schools back to the last century.”
“We want to stamp out students who are cookie-cutter models of each other, fodder for the corporate nation. We don’t want to create active, participating citizens in a democracy, because that is messy.”
DW: What do you say to critics who point out the innumerable anecdotal examples of problems in education—from the bad teacher we all remember having when we were in school, to our national PISA scores, to the stories of teachers arrested for misconduct?
BB: “I went to public school for twelve years, and I turned out well. I had good teachers and bad ones, but the overwhelming majority were good ones. Of course we need standards and we need psychological testing for teachers, but that should be part of their training and college education. In some Scandinavian countries, only a small percentage of applicants land teaching jobs to begin with. If you want to improve the profession, you have to make it an elite profession. You do that with high entry standards and excellent salaries.”
DW: Have the education reforms implemented under Mitch Daniels and Tony Bennet worked?
BB: “No. And that’s not just the state level. This is a national problem, too. We’ve all bought into this argument that if we count the number of hours kids are in school, if we run them through tests, and then run their cards through computers we can evaluate the education they’re receiving. That’s just pure nonsense. We need to go back to the bedrock principles which make up the founding of public education as it was developed a century ago: which is we teach the teachers to teach the kids, and we let the teachers evaluate the students.”
DW: Those in favor of reform say this is part of the problem. Teachers are not well trained, and they don’t evaluate well.
BB: “That wasn’t a problem until we started seeing a decline in the inner-city schools. But we ignored the breakdown of the families in those cities, and we didn’t look at the job conditions there, either. We need to look at the foundational problems which has led us to this place.”
DW: Do you think that the reformers considered the differences between urban, suburban, and rural communities when they created these changes?
BB: “It’s cookie-cutter education. That’s what standardization is. And that’s certainly part of it, but I think the other part of this is that we’ve handed education over to the business people. At the university level, this has been going on for some time, but now we’re seeing it happen at the K-12 level. We want to stamp out students who are cookie-cutter models of each other, fodder for the corporate nation. We don’t want to create active, participating citizens in a democracy, because that is messy.”
DW: One of your primary drumbeats this campaign has been about the dangers of a super-majority. Are you thinking of that when you speak of this ‘cookie-cutter’ future?
BB: “I’m against a super-majority of any kind. A super-majority of Democrats wouldn’t be good, either. I would trust them no less than I trust this super-majority of Republicans. Because a super-majority leads to simple answers to complex questions. You don’t have to debate, and you don’t have to convince anyone from the minority party to see the benefits of your legislation. All you have to do is pass it. So super-majorities lead to autocratic thinking rather than democratic thinking. This is why you get laws like RFRA, why you get laws like House Bill 1337, and why you’ve gotten all of the ed reform laws as well. None of these laws would have passed in the form that they are with a stronger minority helping to shape policies.”
DW: What are your fears if the super-majority holds?
BB: “What we’re seeing with the continued education cuts and all of the legislation surrounding that is the phenomenon Karl Rove spoke of when he said his goal was to shrink government to a size so small that he can put it in a bathtub and drown it. That’s what they want to do. They want to shrink government and basically corporatize America. So, they teach people that government is failing, and…well…they make it fail. They make it look bad. They don’t want government to work. And that’s the problem we’re facing right now: all the money is on their side. And I’m not just talking about the Republicans, either. There are too many corporate Democrats caught up in this.”
DW: Who does that leave?
BB: “Bernie Sanders was the most honest politician I’ve ever seen, and he provided the unspoken truth. It’s a shame he didn’t get the nomination, but when you think about it, this country is becoming more and more progressive with each passing year. It almost makes me dizzy, and I’m 67-years-old. I’ve seen a lot happen in my time. I grew up a fundamentalist. I was a preacher at age 15 speaking in tent revivals. At the age of 12, I had The Book of Luke memorized world-for-word, and I can quote scripture all day long. It’s still a good book, and I think that people ought to study it…that way they wouldn’t be abused by it because they’d know what else is in it. And when I talk to young people, even within my own church circles, I’m talking to people who are enormously progressive. Gay marriage…? Slam dunk. Not even an issue. These are also people who are very concerned about this planet. They understand the concept of science, and they’re upset because they realize that we’re screwing this world up. I think they’re a huge part of the reason Bernie was able to do as well as he did. But the political right and the corporate world…they’re going to kick and fight all the way ‘till the end of this thing.”
DW: Given your religious background, how do you feel about the way in which religion has become an enclave of the Conservative/Republican Party?
BB: “It’s insane. Lutheran scholar Martin Marty referred to it as ‘American Civil Religion.’ We don’t have Christianity is this nation; we have American Civil Religion. Personally I like Jesus a lot. I think he was one of the greatest teachers who stood up for his people. He spoke the truth, and they killed him for it. But once it became a state religion in the 4th century, A.D. it became something else, and I was a part of that in my youth…I accept that. But today I see my allegiance to the truth. This is a view I think I share with a lot of young people and progressives. And if we can continue to move this way, then I think we can do a lot of good in the next 30 years. If that happens, then I think we can continue to live on this planet for many, many generations to come.
As each candidate spoke, I kept asking myself: “What would their opponents say in response?” If no answer is an answer, then I guess their replies are something akin to: “Say whatever you want. We’re going to win, so it doesn’t matter.” Maybe that’s how a democracy is supposed to work. Maybe we’re all supposed to have our minds made up, year after year, always voting for the same primary color regardless whose name in on the ballot, no matter what issues are on the platform. But both common sense and the words of my high school civics teacher tell me otherwise. National Road Magazine is fledgling, sure. We’ve never denied that or for that matter pretended otherwise. But whether a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, or a million people read this, a candidate for public office should be willing to engage in a conversation about the issues—especially one as fundamental to us all as the education of our children.