KOKOMO  –  The casual observer of the recent “Red for Ed” teacher action day probably believes that it was very successful. A massive teacher turnout blanketed the Statehouse and let legislators and the governor know that teachers were fed up with the status quo and weren’t going to take it anymore. The event received the intended publicity across the state.  Newspapers skewered Republicans. Everyone in power felt the heat.  

The last bit of good news regarding “Red for Ed” came on Dec. 10, when Gov. Eric Holcomb announced his 2020 Next Level agenda. Holcomb summed up his priorities by stating that “he will put Hoosier students, teachers and parents first. That means listening to our teachers and giving our students the best education possible.” Furthermore, Holcomb committed to:

• Retaining and bringing the very best educators to teach in Indiana;

• Changing career-related teacher professional growth points from required to optional;

• Supporting the Teacher Compensation Commission and making Indiana a leader in the Midwest for teacher pay;
• Working with educators to identify unfunded mandates and unnecessary requirements in K-12 education;

• Holding schools and teachers harmless for 2018-2019 ILEARN scores.

To most folks this looks like the governor and teachers are moving in symphony and that, soon, all will be right. This probably is not the case. There are deeply ingrained, philosophical issues that will not be resolved anytime soon. If you think that “Red for Ed” was about teacher pay and the educational success of little Johnny and little Mary, then you are living in the land of unicorns.

None of Gov. Holcomb’s 2020 Next Level agenda addresses the real causes of educator angst. The real heart of the great educational divide involves:

• Property tax reform;

• School choice;

• Charter schools;

• Vouchers;

• Money following students;

• Redrawing legislative districts.

Once upon a time, prior to Gov. Mitch Daniels, teachers and educators were a fairly happy lot. If your local schools needed additional money, the superintendent went to the school board for a property tax increase and soon the money magically moved from the pockets of taxpayers to the schools. In some school districts, the natural increase in property values meant that those schools received a nice increase each year, even with a stable tax rate. Districts with flat or declining property values were required to hike tax rates to keep up with the Joneses or the Carmels.  

This quaint system of property owner larceny worked fine until property taxes started to get out of control. Gov. Daniels knew the problems caused by out-of-control property taxes and he took bold action, backed by a new Republican legislative majority, to dramatically reform property tax and, along with it, educational funding. While still retaining local property tax decisions on capital funding and transportation, the state took over the responsibility for much of school funding. In fact, school funding now eats up approximately 53% of the state budget. Instead of increased school funding coming from compliant school boards, superintendents had to go hat in hand to the state legislature every two years to seek their increases.

About this same time, Indiana dramatically impacted education by implementing school choice, charter schools, a voucher system and a funding strategy that had state money following the students.  

Talk about apoplexy! The average educator viewed these changes as the death knell of all that they hold sacred. The fatted calf of education funding had been sacrificed and served up to an admiring public over the heated objections of the professional educator community.

With these changes implemented, parents now had the right to seek the best educational opportunity for their child whether it was in their own district, a neighboring district or in a new charter school. Better yet, the funding for the child followed to their new school. Schools viewed as successful prospered. Schools viewed as failures struggled. There was outright rebellion caused by giving parents control over their child’s education and the funds to make it happen.  

Instead of dealing with the perceived failure of their schools to educate our children effectively, many corporations turned to accusing the Republican-led legislature of the destruction of public schools, racism and classism. Some corporations turned to trying to make their schools more attractive by building athletic Taj Mahals, over-the-top new facilities and slick marketing ploys. A few corporations even tried to improve their educational product.

The struggle to grab the most money for their corporations then hit the people who are the most important piece of the educational puzzle, the teachers. As administrative staff and expenses escalated, class sizes grew, teaching demands grew larger and teacher pay stagnated. Forget the new press box at the football stadium. Forget the new athletic weight room. Forget the new electronic sign in front of the high school. Concentrate on the one issue that everyone cares about, little Johnny and little Mary and their noble mistreated and underpaid teacher. To the barricades!

Of course, in the eyes of professional educators, the one pervasive and critical roadblock to educational Nirvana is the continuing Republican dominance of the Indiana Legislature. Why good old folks like Common Cause, environmentalists, unions and just about anyone who isn’t getting their preferred slice of the state budget is convinced that if we had fair, non-political drawing of legislative districts, then all of their problems would disappear. Bring back Pat Bauer and life will be good!

It is ironic that we only hear about drawing legislative districts being problematic when Republicans are in control. When Pat Bauer was in control of the Indiana House of Representatives, Republicans won 53% of the legislative votes cast and yet Democrats controlled the House. Where were the teacher unions then?

Gov. Holcomb’s 2020 Next Level agenda will go a long way toward addressing many of the festering teacher issues. However, the educational infrastructure and the swamp creatures who dwell within will not be satisfied with this agenda. Nothing less than turning back the clock to the “good old days” will be enough. The sad fact is that “Red for Ed” is not about little Johnny or little Mary, it is about the fat cats that dwell at the educational trough. Students, teachers, parents and taxpayers be damned! “Red for Ed” is about control.  

Like my former driver’s education teacher Mr. Thompson told me back when I was 16, the best views are looking ahead and not looking in the rearview mirror. 

Dunn is the former Howard County Republican Chairman.