Local watchdog group tackles state education
Jamie Duffy | The Journal Gazette
When Phyllis Bush retired from South Side High School in 1999, she thought she’d have plenty of time to do “typical, retired old person stuff.” That would include a lot of reading for this former English teacher and department chair.
“I was pretty happily retired until I saw all this stuff that Tony Bennett and Mitch Daniels were doing,” Bush said, referring to the former state superintendent of education and former governor.
So out went Jane Austen novels and in came volumes of emails, links, papers and websites.
“When Tony Bennett started pushing reforms, especially charters and vouchers, several of us started going to town hall meetings,” Bush said. “Then three of us went to the Save Our Schools march in Washington.”
That was the summer of 2011. Now three years later, her group, the Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education, has a Facebook page with 1,330 followers, a Twitter feed and even a Pinterest account. The watchdog group’s members have a mission – “to inform and engage the public” – and have honed in on major issues they feel are threatening public education.
On Wednesday, seven people associated with the group attended the State Board of Education meeting at Ivy Tech Community College-Northeast in Fort Wayne. They watched as the vote went 7-3 in favor of REPA III, or Rules for Education Preparation and Accountability, aimed at relaxing requirements for career professionals who want to enter the teaching profession.
Bush called the new rules redundant. “There are enough avenues where, if you were coming from another field, from business or whatever, to go into teaching, there are enough provisional pathways,” she said.
Learning how to teach is as important as knowing your subject, Bush insists, and she warns there will be unintended consequences.
One of the group’s initiatives is a questionnaire sent to all state legislative candidates on the November ballot and U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd.
Candidates were asked to describe their vision for the future of education in Indiana, their view on whether tax dollars should support private and parochial education, whether any school receiving state money should hold open board meetings, whether they support state-funded public preschool, with or without vouchers, and questions on standardized testing.
“I think it speaks volumes not one Republican filled out the form,” Bush said. “We called each of their offices, sent them in snail mail.”
Seven Democratic candidates have answered, she said.
Standardized tests are one of the group’s biggest concerns, said Stewart Bloom, an elementary school teacher who retired from East Allen County Schools and now writes the blog for the group.
“We use the tests in the wrong ways,” he said, citing misuse and overuse. The wrong way is using the tests to evaluate schools and teachers and for school rankings, he said. The original purpose was to help teachers pinpoint student needs.
“The way it’s set up now, the incentive is to push other subjects out of the curriculum and just teach what is on the test,” he said.
According to Bloom, egregious testing started in 2002 with the No Child Left Behind federal law signed by President George W. Bush. However, the group is equally critical of Common Core.
“President Obama is just as bad if not worse in the overuse of testing,” Bloom said. “Common Core, if adopted, would increase the amount of testing.”
Bush and Bloom said the group doesn’t plan to use responses to the questionnaire to endorse candidates.
“Many people think that we are Democrats because we are so critical of the Republicans in the state legislature. The fact of the matter is that since there are so few Democrats, it is hard to be critical of them because their votes don’t count for much. However, we are equal opportunity critics; if the Democrats were in power we would go after them, too.”
“I’m pro education,” he said. “I don’t care who is helping people to be educated.”
Besides the pressure of teaching to the test, teachers also have less voice in the education process, according to Bush. The general public apparently believes that teachers have tenure, she said.
“They’ve never had tenure as long as they’ve been in Indiana. What we did have was due process. Now we no longer have due process,” something Bush attributes to “Mitch Daniels busting the unions” when the Indiana right-to-work legislation passed in 2011.
The lack of due process has silenced some teachers who fear losing their jobs if they have differences of opinion with their administration, she said. Teachers feel they “cannot squawk about it” and if they do they could “lose professional points on my teacher evaluation if my principal does not like what I’m saying. Some of the checks and balances are gone.”
The next step for the group will be a general questionnaire for the public.
For Bush, who is 71, she’ll divide her time between hanging out with friends and walking her dog, activities she thought would be filling her time these days. She took up the work with the group, though, because she felt the profession she loves “was being decimated.”
Now she spends several hours a day on her activism.
“I don’t even want to think about it because I have no life,” she said, “but I was concerned about the kids and my grandkids and what was happening to public education.”