MEETING THE PEOPLE ... State Rep. Matt Lehman and State Sen. Travis Holdman stand before a large crowd at a town hall meeting held Saturday at the library in Decatur. (Photo by Eric Mann)
At least 50 people showed up for a legislative discussion on Saturday morning in Decatur with the two men who represent Adams County in the Indiana General Assembly, State Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, and State Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle.
The biggest issues, dominating half of the hour-long event, were educational, such as charter schools vs. public schools and teacher vs. school board contract negotiations.
Both legislators chastised Gov. Mitch Daniels and Education Department Superintendent Tony Bennett for the ways they make their points in public speeches, including the recent State of the State address.
Holdman, who noted several times that his wife is a first grade teacher who regularly reminds him about educational matters, said he told Daniels and Bennett to "tone down the rhetoric a little bit" and received an apology from Bennett.
Lehman stated that Daniels and Bennett "paint with way-too-wide a brush sometimes" when they describe educational situations and subjects publicly.
One person remarked that Bennett's wife is heavily involved in the charter school movement and wondered if that causes a conflict of interest for Bennett, who supports charter schools.
When a local teacher asked why she never hears anyone in the legislature or in state government saying that schools are generally good in Indiana, Lehman fired back, "It is being said" and Holdman agreed, adding that there are many more good teachers than bad teachers in the state.
Lehman went on to say that "public schools are over-regulated" by the state.
The education discussion started with veteran North Adams teacher Randy Hisner asking about a bill which he said would eliminate collective bargaining for teacher contracts by saying that, 30 days after an impasse, the school board could impose any of the original proposals.
Holdman disputed that view, saying, "That's not what's moving" in the Senate. He said the bill would stop collective bargaining on all issues except salaries and benefits. NA Superintendent Wylie Sirk spoke up to agree with Holdman. The senator added, "Everything's in flux right now."
The matter of giving monetary vouchers to parents to let them use that money to put their children in other schools, such as charter schools, arose next, although Lehman cautioned the audience to not link those two concepts. He made the point that there is greater agreement in the legislature for charter schools than for vouchers and called the whole matter "a work in progress."
One woman commented that of the 25 worst schools in Marion County (Indianapolis), 21 are charter schools.
Lehman responded by saying the three school districts in Adams County are very good and that he has just two or three charter schools in his district, one of which in Fort Wayne has 300 students who are 90 percent non-Caucasian and 90 percent from one-parent families.
He also said that of Indiana's top 10 most improved schools in recent years, five are charter schools.
When Hisner asked why there is a move to "create competition to public schools," Lehman answered by saying that his support for charter schools does not mean he is "anti public schools." In fact, he declared that charter schools are public schools.
Holdman said charter schools have "little or no impact on our area" and described the public satisfaction level with public schools in northeastern Indiana as "among the highest in the nation."
The state's major school problems, Holdman and Lehman said, are in Marion and Lake counties. Holdman went on to say that Indianapolis, which had the largest public school system in the state for decades, will fall to No. 2 behind Fort Wayne by 2012 because so many people have left that system due to failing schools. He said the Indianapolis/Marion County school district used to have 100,000 students, but is down to 33,000.
The senator elaborated on that theme by saying the school systems in Indianapolis and Gary "wrote the book" on educational failure. He added that the Fort Wayne school district operates well, but the East Allen school system "has a boatload of problems."
In regard to a bill to set the day when public schools start, Holdman said he will vote "No" because that subject must be decided locally.
Holdman also endorsed the 2010 film "Waiting for Superman," which details educational flaws in the U.S. He recently saw the movie and said it made a big impact on him.
Superintendent Sirk said charter schools were begun in the 1980s as "incubators" for regular public schools, but now are considered by many people as "a silver bullet" solution to the nation's educational problems.
Sirk said "alternatives are important in education," but there are many state roadblocks, such as the denial of an idea for North Adams Schools to start a wind-power operation. Sirk said, people say to "think outside the box," but when the NA school board did so with the windfarm plan, state education officials said, "No."
A teacher told the audience that charter schools can turn down students, such as those with Down Syndrome, which will leave the regular public schools to "carry the burden" of educating "the neediest of the needy."
Holdman suggested that charter schools pick students by holding a lottery and drawing names out of a hat to insure fairness.
After Lehman asked the questioning teachers "Do you only care about the students in your district?," Hisner replied that teachers care about all youth.
Hisner also protested that government money given in any way to church schools is a violation of the Constitution's doctrine of separation of church and state.
Holdman remarked that, last year, the state provided about $6,000 per student for those in Adams County's three public districts, but $11,000 per student for those in Lake and Marion counties.