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Area teachers optimistic about new chief of schools

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The Indiana State Teachers Association had a goal heading into last week’s election: It wanted each teacher to speak with seven people about the race for state superintendent of instruction.

The association, which has about 49,000 members throughout Indiana, had a political action committee that was contributing money to Democrat Glenda Ritz’s campaign against Republican incumbent Tony Bennett.

But ISTA representative Kim Fidler — who works with Center Grove, Clark-Pleasant, Greenwood and Franklin schools — said teachers knew money wouldn’t be enough to help Ritz’s campaign. They needed to talk with voters about what the race’s outcome could mean for their children’s education.

In the past four years Bennett has overseen sweeping education reforms in Indiana, including the voucher system, which provides tax dollars to low- and middle-income families so they can attend private schools, and a state-sanctioned teacher evaluation system.

Teachers throughout the state, including Beth Heavin from Center Grove Middle School North Center and Katie Hoffman from Grove Middle School Central, thought the voucher program hurts public schools by taking away thousands of dollars with every student who left. Last year, 45 Johnson County students applied and were approved for the vouchers, and this year that number jumped to 128.

They also felt the new evaluation system, which factors students’ ISTEP scores and can impact teachers’ salaries, showed the state had little faith in public schools.

So teachers statewide took to Facebook and Twitter, posting notes in support of Ritz. They purchased campaign signs for their yards.

They explained to friends and family why they felt Bennett’s reforms were harmful to public education and why Ritz would be a better choice for teachers and students.

Heavin didn’t talk with any of her students’ parents about the election. But she looked for opportunities to discuss the race with anyone else she knew. She, Fidler and Hoffman believe that kind of word-of-mouth is what helped Ritz defeat Bennett.

“Glenda Ritz is an amazing candidate, and she will make a great superintendent of public instruction,” Heavin said.

The vouchers, evaluations and other reforms are now state law, and neither Hoffman nor Heavin expects to have them repealed, especially with the election of Republican Mike Pence as governor and the largely Republican Indiana General Assembly.

But if lawmakers review the laws and decide changes are needed, they believe Ritz, who has spoken out against relying heavily on standardized tests to assess students, can help implement changes that are more supportive of teachers and helpful for students.

“I think teachers see hope now,” Hoffman said.

The ISTA represents teachers from all six of Johnson County’s public school districts, but the county’s roughly 1,300 public teachers aren’t required to join. Members of the teachers association pay dues, which cannot be used for political campaigns, but they can choose to make an annual $24 contribution to the political action committee, Fidler said.

Hoffman, who is also president of the United Teachers Association of Center Grove, said that her biggest problem with Bennett’s mandates is that they were proposed and approved by the state very quickly, many within the past two years.

“I think the kind of changes we were asked to make based on the new laws, everything felt very rushed. And it was a lot of changes in a short amount of time,” she said.

Hoffman, Heavin and Ritz all agreed teachers need to be evaluated. But Heavin said linking the current evaluations to teachers’ pay is a problem. Teachers can’t control all aspects of students’ lives. For example, if a student comes from an unstable home, that can impact their ISTEP scores and grades, she said.

Some school districts in Indiana needed an updated evaluation for teachers. Others, including several in Johnson County, already had evaluations similar to what the state now requires. That raises the question of why a new evaluation was required statewide, Hoffman said.

Hoffman wished more teachers would have been given an opportunity to speak with lawmakers before the evaluations, the voucher program and other reforms became law. She and Heavin are hopeful Ritz will find a way to make the state’s education laws more supportive of teachers, though neither is completely sure what to expect from the state in the next four years.

“There’s been a lot done in what was called education reform in our state. She’s going to have to work with what she has and try to make that more efficient,” Hoffman said.

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