Tired, disheartened and worried, a group of more than 20 local teachers met with State Rep. Tom Saunders (R-Lewisville) and Sen. Jean Leising (R-Oldenburg) Friday afternoon in New Castle. All seemed to feel caught in an education reform web that has now become so entangled, they fear students are suffering.

In a polite but firm and at times emotional meeting, teachers emphasized to local legislators:

  • The testing process now outweighs the overall benefit of the student
  • Problems in many students' home lives continue to go unaddressed, making it harder and harder for youth to concentrate in school, no matter what reform strategy is employed.
  • The heavy-handed, at times arrogant and tunnel-vision approach some politicians have displayed toward education has greatly damaged the morale of teachers, some of whom said they feel like giving up and applying for jobs as greeters at department stores.
"There's a sense of declining morale, a sense we're being vilified," New Castle history teacher James Thurston said. "I spend more and more of my time dealing with documentation and data, looking at state standards and preparing for an evaluation. We want to do the right thing, but the speed, intensity and quantity of education reforms has been overwhelming."

From spring to fall ISTEP and back to spring again. Teacher merit pay legislation. A move to Common Core standards. A complicated letter grade system for schools. A new teacher evaluation system. Taxpayer money being taken away from public schools and given to private operation. These are a few of the recent education reforms that, in some cases, are still in process of being implemented.

Teachers feel state leaders have made education goals a moving target and taken the focus off what's really important: the student.

"It's about money, not raising standards," New Castle Community School Board President Liz Whitmer said.

"Public education is a multi-billion dollar operation and business people want to take control of that," veteran teacher Jerry Walden agreed.

Leising said she believed the catalyst for this avalanche of education reform begin in two major metropolitan districts - Marion and Lake counties - which are far different than the rural districts like those here. She reminded the crowd that nine of the 50 state senators have a least a part of Marion County in their districts.

"It's like killing an ant with a sledgehammer," she said of the changes.

"It's 13 years of failed education policy," Whitmer said.

Teachers found a sympathetic audience in Saunders and Leising.

Saunders urged the teachers to be just as vigilant in the current legislation session as they were in a dramatic grassroots effort that resulted in little-known Glenda Ritz upsetting incumbent Tony Bennett as state superintendent of public instruction.

A bill scheduled for second reading consideration today in the Indiana House would take away much of the power from the state school superintendent. Saunders and Leising, both Republicans, emphasized they will not support an effort to strip power away from Ritz, a Democrat.

"I think the majority of people got the message about education in the last election," Saunders said.

"To me, she was duly elected," Leising said. "She should be given a chance."

Teachers as a group expressed concern they are being punished for factors they can't control - the deteriorating home life many students now have growing up.

"Come to our school at 7 a.m. and see how many students are in our cafeteria," one teacher said. "For some, the breakfast and lunch served here is the only food they'll get all day. A student who lives in a mobile home where he's cold and hungry, then comes to school where he's expected to concentrate? No wonder he's angry."

The current teacher evaluation system has too much room for apples to oranges comparisons, another teacher said.

"I have 32 sixth-grade students in my class and yet I feel like I'm graded on the same basis as someone who only has 15 or 16."

Others said two or three struggling children can not only affect a teacher's prospect for a raise, but lower an entire school corporation grade.

"Instead of working with a child one-on-one, you're poring over data," Thurston said. "You give them homework time in class because you know parents aren't going to see that the students do it when they go home."

Leising and Saunders emphasized that there was hope. They pointed to Indiana's First Lady, Karen Pence, who is a teacher.

"She will be a very active first lady and she's an educator," Saunders said.

Both legislators said, however they would not support a Gov. Pence initiative for a taxpayer refund if full-day kindergarten is not fully funded.

Teacher Shelley Fortune summed up the meeting by saying efforts to run education like a business are misguided.

"It's not a business," she said. "Students are not products."
© Copyright 2019, The Courier-Times, New Castle, IN.