When the first of what could be more-to-come education bills passed the Indiana House of the Indiana General Assembly last week, some Hoosiers were likely happy, but many weren't. Being an old ag teacher myself, I still have contacts in those circles, and I stopped by where half a dozen or so were gathered to score FFA proficiency forms based on students' outside-the-classroom programs last week.
The homemade sandwiches and chips were good, and they let me eat for free. They went about their business. But as the grading wound down and I asked about education, I didn't get to talk again for at least half an hour. And there weren't smiling faces after I mentioned that subject. Veteran Joe Park, Indiana Creek High School, now on his 41st year as ag instructor there, had expressed his opposition to the bill in the local paper, and even contacted his local representatives. But he felt his words were falling on deaf ears.
My original question was; "What would this do to agricultural education?" In a normal setting in a normal year, ag teachers would be worried about whether money for reimbursement for schools for training vo-ag students would remain intact. This night I actually never got an answer to my question.
Why not? Because they were so dejected by what they feel could be the impending doom of all public education that this time they believe it's much bigger than themselves. They believe all teachers are under attack, not just ag teachers. One person in the room is at a small school, the size Governor Daniels targeted for consolidation a year ago. He figures he'll still have a job next year, but his future after that, is very much in doubt.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I joined the teachers union for one year out of five when I taught. When they wouldn't bother to help me when I had a problem, I figured why help them? I don't know how many, if any, of the teachers in the room belong to the union. You won't ever mistake me as a poster child for supporting unions of any type, including teachers unions. But sometimes hard times and unusual circumstances make strange bedfellows. What my friends in the room fear most is that the union will lose its grip, and all school evaluations and teacher evaluations will be done from Indianapolis.
They also fear an environment where they're penalized for student performance. Anecdotally, I'm told there's a clause in the bill that counts against a teacher if students are tardy. It would show up in their merit pay. And this group of teachers have already figured out that suddenly the guidance counselors would become the most important people in the public school. Every teacher would be after them to put the brightest kids in their class if they were going to get paid on student performance.
Merit pay has its merits. I've long had a problem with just giving automatic increases for longevity, when some of the worst teachers are the ones that have been there the longest. Due to union protection, they couldn't be touched even if they did a poor job. But merit pay when it comes to administering it is fraught with 'devil in the detail' details. Why do you think it hasn't been tried here before?
What my little group seemed most upset about was their contention that what's happening in Indianapolis is not about what's best for kids or education. Instead, it's all about politics and pet projects of certain politicians, namely charter schools.
The discussion finally ended, and we parted with hearty goodbyes, but there was still a feeling of dread in the air. They were in their classrooms the next day doing their best, teaching and preparing kids for FFA activities, because they're professionals. But they're concerned professionals. They're afraid their whole world is about to go topsy-turvy.
Is this column on the heavy side compared to my normal chatter here? You bet. There's nothing humorous about what could happen if politicians throw the baby out with the bath water. No, schools aren't perfect. Yes, changes could be made. But the legislature isn't talking about tweaking the system. They're voting to scrap the whole system and start over, whether they realize it or not. A lot of discussion ought to take place and a lot of people should have their opinions heard before Indiana goes that far.