Indiana State Rep. Vernon G. Smith (D-Gary) says Gov. Mike Pence’s touted efforts to create a pilot pre-K education program in Indiana was big on political points and small on the number of students it helped.
“During his first year in office in 2013, Gov. Pence sat on the sidelines as a pre-K pilot bill was defeated by his Republican majorities in the Indiana General Assembly,” explained Dr. Smith, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee. “It appears that Mike realized the political potential of establishing a pre-K pilot program that he could later tout to a national audience if he ever got the chance to be on the big stage. In 2014, the governor pushed a tiny pre-K pilot program that served 1,585 four-year-olds last year and will fund nearly 2,300 children in only five counties this coming school year.
“We all understood the budgetary constraints of expanding this pre-K program statewide, as the program needs to be,” continued Dr. Smith, who is an education professor at Indiana University Northwest. “However, there was a real opportunity to expand the program to serve another 2,000 children with a federal education grant of up to $80 million. On the day the application was to be submitted, Gov. Pence all of a sudden decided not to submit the application. Indiana was one of only two states listed as “category one states,” which made us eligible to apply for much larger amounts than the other competitor states. We were all dumbfounded by his last-minute decision.
“The reasons the governor gave were that the funds would come with federal requirements that would hinder the state’s pilot pre-K program,” added Dr. Smith. “That obviously played well to his conservative base. He also said it was unwise to expand the pre-K program before understanding how well it was working. Well, in other states, pre-K education has positively changed the low productivity of those low-income four-year-olds. It was hypocritical for the governor to block the federal funds for which he is now begging, as of June of this year.
“When a vaccine is proven to be effective, do you give half dosages to the population with the hope that the half dosage will prove effective?” asked Dr. Smith. “It all doesn’t make sense unless one looks at these events through a political lens to see the most advantageous path to the presidency by an ambitious Republican politician. These are concerns many of us have privately discussed, but it is time to publicly say it because Gov. Pence is trying to paint his mediocre education policy as a great success that the rest of the country should model. His education policy was not a panacea. He did not put students first. He put his political ambitions first.”
While Dr. Smith said there are numerous other education issues of concern, he pointed out the teacher shortage in Indiana as a particular concern.
“We passed a bill last session, which I supported, to provide incentives for students wanting to be teachers,” said Dr. Smith. “However, that is a five-year program after one considers the students will be spending four years obtaining an education degree. But the problem is here now. There has been no real action to deal with the present-day issue of teacher retention and recruitment. We need a multi-faceted approach and last year’s bill is only one of those facets.
“The Indiana General Assembly and recent Republican governors, as well as former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, helped create the problem by their incessant attacks on public education and teachers,” offered Dr. Smith. They publicly vilified dedicated women and men in the field of education to the point that many retired and others moved from the state or got out of the profession altogether.
“Respect for teachers must be a cornerstone of any real education reform,” emphasized Dr. Smith. “What we have had for the past 12 years has been education regression. It is time for the General Assembly and whoever will be the new governor to actually work with Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, instead of playing partisan games with the futures of our children. Hoosier students should never be used as pawns in a political chess game.”