For an educational system as complex as our country’s, reformers have long sought a singular “silver bullet” that will be the tipping point for better education. For some, the schools are too big, so the answer was a smaller school. To others, teacher quality seemed to be the answer. To still others, we simply needed more choice so that competition would raise the level of quality in all schools.
In fact, all of these answers, plus a wide range of others, are needed to affect substantial reform for better education. Indiana’s recently passed “Putting Students First” agenda, what is being tagged as the most comprehensive education reform package in the nation.
Although there may be loud protests from some quarters, it is notable that Indiana Superintendent Dr. Tony Bennett and his staff have met with nearly 30,000 Indiana educators to build the agenda. With this ground level input, the legislation that has been passed has the power to effectively improve public school education, while giving parents a wide assortment of high quality school options to best meet the needs of their students.
Empowering School Leaders
In order to improve the quality of public school education, Senate Bill 575 gives principals much more flexibility in the leadership and control of their schools. This is done by narrowing teacher contract negotiations to salary and wage-related benefits only. All other working conditions can be discussed, but are not included in the contract. This bill frees principals from contractual limitations, and enables them to pursue new innovations to support effective learning.
Treating Teachers like True Professionals
The most important factor in the educational process is the teacher, and how they approach their classroom. For too long, however, teachers have experienced a work environment that did not financially recognize outstanding teaching, and one in which it was very difficult to remove teachers who were not effective. The new law will do away with several practices that work against effective teachers and implement new measures that will recognize outstanding teachers:
The above new laws are intended to strengthen and improve the quality of the public schools. This will benefit the students with teachers who are truly interested in students actually learning the subject matter, and with principals who have the freedom – and the accountability – to effectively bring innovation to classrooms.
Turning Around Failing Schools
The laws also create a clear method for the state to intervene in chronically failing schools, in order to get them back on the right track:
High Quality Options for Students with Non-traditional Needs
The above measures will benefit the majority of students attending local public schools. It is well known, however, that even within a quality school environment, there are students who need an optional setting in order to be successful. Unfortunately, optional settings are not available for many families due to distance, space, or finances.
In addition to laws that were passed in 2010 which made it possible for students to transfer from one public school district to another--sometimes referred to as “open enrollment”—which provides full public school choice, two bills in the recent package take school choice to the next level by allow parents to choose the most appropriate school for their child from a few additional options:
A notable feature of this voucher plan is that the public schools must have their opportunity to meet the needs of the student first. Therefore, in order for a student to be available for the voucher, that student must attend a public school for two semesters. The numbers of students who can take advantage of the vouchers are as follows: 7,500 in 2012, 15,000 in 2013, and unlimited after that.
Money to Back It Up!
Indiana ranks #1 in the nation in the percentage of its state budget (55 percent) that goes to K-12 education. The state itself is in the black (a rare phenomenon for a state government these days) and has a AAA credit rating.
House Bill 1001 will add another 1.5 percent to the budget to fund a full-day kindergarten for the state, and create a new teacher performance fund to reward great teachers and increase overall K-12 funding.
In what may be a unique program to move students along the path to be productive citizens, the law includes a Senior Year Scholarship program. This program permits students to graduate at the end of their junior year and spend what would have been their senior year enrolled in the post-secondary option of their choice. The program then provides a $4,000 scholarship to the student’s chosen post-secondary option, which may be a university, a community college, a career-technical program, or a host of other options.
A Focused, Coordinated Reform Package
So instead of seeking that single “silver bullet”, Gov. Mitch Daniels and Dr. Tony Bennett have put together a focused, coordinated reform package, and have signed it into law. This is great news for education throughout the state, as it enhances the effectiveness and accountability of both public and non-public schools, makes it easier to establish options through an expanded charter school system, gives principals the opportunity to really lead schools toward increasing student achievement, recognizes and rewards teachers as true professionals, gives parents increased options to select the school that best meets the needs of their children, and focuses the efforts of all those involved on students actually learning.
“Our legislators did more than transform education policies in Indiana; they also passed a school funding plan that is aligned to our goals for Hoosier students,” Bennett said. “These policy and funding reforms come together to dramatically improve our system of schools, and give educators and parents every opportunity to increase academic success for every student.”
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