By Vernon G. Smith, Indiana State Representative for District 14
Like every other session I have been a part of in my 30 years as a state representative, there were several bills I’m pleased we put through and several areas in which I see room for improvement.
We did manage to pass legislation that ensures schools will be held harmless from ILEARN test scores, decouples teacher evaluations from those same scores, and will make a 15-hour internship requirement optional for teachers. However, we did nothing to increase teacher pay or allow loan forgiveness for distressed schools. It seems we will forever be waiting to resolve the tougher issues during the next session.
As the ranking minority member of the Indiana House Education Committee, I saw many failed attempts to improve the lives of students and teachers, starting with increasing teacher compensation. It is an embarrassment to watch yet another year go by without addressing the stagnancy of Indiana’s teacher salaries. In the nation, Indiana is ranked 35th in average teacher pay. We are experiencing a teacher shortage and there’s no mistake as to why: the lack of respect from this legislative body for the teaching profession.
In addition to the many bills my fellow representative Gregory W. Porter (D-Indianapolis) introduced to use money from the budget surplus for a raise in teacher salaries, I authored House Bill 1296 in an effort to increase the local salary range for teachers with master’s or doctorate degrees. Unfortunately, neither of these actions were adopted by the supermajority to make a difference for our hardworking teachers.
Regarding the legislation we did pass, it is not enough in many ways. Yes, we held schools harmless from the results of ILEARN test scores for two years, but we failed to confront the real problem: the test itself. High-stakes testing has been a detriment to the culture of education in our state for many years and we have yet again failed to address it as a whole. Accountability and monitoring are very important, but when it gets in the way of a quality education, we need to reevaluate how we’re doing it. I am glad that we were able to give a reprieve from ILEARN testing and decouple teachers’ salaries from student test scores, but I am disappointed by the lack of conversation the Legislature had this year concerning where we go from here.
Additionally, this session I was appointed as a member of the Distressed Unit Appeal Board (DUAB), which exists to discuss plans to help school corporations in need of assistance. This allows me to serve as a voice for members of the Gary community and remain updated on the developments concerning Gary Community School Corporation.
This year, I had legislation that would have added another nonvoting seat to DUAB so we no longer have to rotate a seat between House Republicans and House Democrats. This bill was never heard in committee, and neither was legislation I authored that would forgive loans for schools in distress. Nevertheless, I will continue advocating for more seats at these important meetings and fighting for schools in need.
During the 2020 Session, we also made several efforts to convince the state to re-focus academic control of distressed schools back to the local school boards, as academics have deteriorated under state management. Prior to the takeover, we had one school with an A-rating and several B-rated schools, but those ratings have fallen because of new management.
It is my opinion that the state has placed money supervision above academics in this time of struggle and now, all Gary schools are failing except one, which is located on the Westside.
We could have done more. Out of more than one hundred bills drafted this session, only four proposals from House Democrats made it through the process.
We could have done more, and I will remain a staunch advocate for improving Indiana’s education system and a proud representative of the Gary community until we do.