John Krull

John Krull

This session of the Indiana General Assembly blows away a lot of the smoke surrounding the nasty debate about education in the Hoosier state.

The fighting really isn’t about children or performance or accountability or competitiveness. It really isn’t even about education.

It’s about power.

It’s about who wields the whip and who feels the pain of the lash. It’s about who gives the orders and who bows and scrapes after they’re given.

For decades, Indiana Republicans have been irritated by, angry with and even embittered toward the Indiana State Teachers Association – ISTA – and other teachers’ unions. At its height, ISTA may have been the most powerful interest group in the state – the group’s only real rival was the Indiana Chamber of Commerce – and the teachers’ union wasn’t shy about wielding its power.

ISTA fought hard, even savagely, against all measures that the organization’s leaders thought contrary to teachers’ interests, even those that were only tangentially related to education policy.

And the fact that teachers tended to vote overwhelmingly Democratic and ISTA often seemed to be both a breeding ground for future Democratic Party operatives and a soft landing pad for Democratic political professionals who left, sort of, government and political work did nothing to endear the union to the GOP.

That’s why Indiana Republicans have been determined to break ISTA and other teachers’ unions. And the state GOP has had remarkable success in doing so.

Republicans such as Gov. Mike Pence say they want to introduce accountability into the schools. That’s not true.

If it were true, Pence wouldn’t be trying to exempt charter schools from the same performance standards that he wants the state to apply to traditional public schools. He also would be troubled by the data that shows that, both nationally and locally, charter schools have produced results that are at best mixed.

The most reliable, non-partisan studies have shown that only 29 percent of America’s charter schools are performing at or above the level of their traditional public school counterparts.

Why then do the governor and his other determined band of education “reformers” feel such devotion to charters and other “choice” educational options?

It’s because charters and private schools don’t have to abide by “cumbersome” regulations – the most cumbersome of which seems to be working with teachers who belong to a union and can bargain collectively.

The focus on teachers’ unions is made clear by the measure introduced by Sen. Pete Miller, R- Avon. Miller’s bill would allow non-union teachers to negotiate for their own salaries and benefits. It also would require them to waive their due process rights if they are fired.

It’s hard to see how separating teachers from protection under the law is going to help students perform better in the classroom.

And, of course, there are the two show-stoppers this session – the attempts first to remove the state superintendent of public instruction as chair of the Indiana Board of Education and then to make the superintendent a position appointed by the governor rather than elected by the voters.

The background on that one makes clear the motivation.

Democrat Glenda Ritz won the superintendent’s office in 2012 with a lot of help from ISTA and other teachers’ groups. Since then, in her capacity as chair of the state board, she and the other members of the state board – all of whom were appointed by Republican governors – have kicked and clawed and fought with each other non-stop.

By stripping Ritz of the board chair’s position and, eventually, depriving the superintendent of any chance to take a case to the voters, Republicans accomplish at least two things. They remove a persistent headache and they deny ISTA a seat at the table where the state’s education policy is determined.

This is an ugly fight – and it’s going to get a lot uglier.

The tragedy is that the innocent bystanders who are most likely to get hurt – our children, the state’s students – don’t have the vote or any other way to protect themselves from the carnage.

One way or the other, this war to break teachers’ unions in Indiana will be over before long.

The damage done to the state’s schools – and the students who attended them while the battle raged – will last a lot longer.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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