Editors note: Six school superintendents are retiring this year in Lake and Porter counties. Two retired last year. Among the most highly respected educators in the state, their departure paves the way for younger and, in some cases, veteran educators to take their place. They have invested more than 250 years collectively in education. The six are George Letz, MSD Boone Township; Jim Rice, River Forest Community School Corp.; Richard Sopko, School Town of Munster; Mike Berta, Valparaiso Community Schools; Dan DeHaven, Lake Station Community Schools; and E. Ric Frataccia, Portage Township Schools. Though Frataccia is retiring from Portage, he has signed a three-year contract to become superintendent in Valparaiso. Michael Harding retired from East Chicago schools.
The Times met with Letz, Sopko, Berta and DeHaven, along with recently retired Superintendents Tony Lux (Merrillville Community School Corp.) and Mike Boskovich (School Town of Highland) for a roundtable discussion on the state of education in Indiana.
The superintendents said the documentary, "Rise Above the Mark," aptly depicts the current assault on public education with its metaphor that little termites are eating away at the foundation of the system in the form of school-fund diversions to public charters, vouchers to private schools and property tax caps.
The documentary, which focuses on Indiana’s struggles with public school reforms that mirror what's happening in the rest of the country, is the brainchild of Rocky Killion, West Lafayette superintendent of schools and a former assistant superintendent for Lake Central School Corp. in St. John.
The superintendents lauded positive changes begun by Indiana education leader Glenda Ritz, a Democrat who defeated in fall of 2012 Republican incumbent Tony Bennett. Bennett led the fight for sweeping reform in Indiana with the support of a Republican-controlled state Legislature and former Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels.
Under Bennett's four-year term, there was an increase in private-school vouchers and public charter schools, a new teacher evaluation process and a new A-F school grading formula.
Berta said Bennett fostered an "adversarial culture," and Sopko said his administration represented a "loss of local control." Sopko called Ritz a 'breath of fresh air" for valuing the classroom teacher rather than "demeaning" teachers.
"One of Ritz's strengths is that she has a very good insight into the teaching and learning process and she understands the importance of bringing people together and solving problems cooperatively rather than dividing the troops," Berta said.
Lux said under Bennett there was an "abdication of responsibility" by the state to improve education. "Instead of improving education, it was replaced by an attitude of judging and giving grades to local schools, with a move to turn them over to private companies," he said.
In place of taking over schools, Ritz has created the Division of Outreach, under which specialists go in and work with existing schools on best practices. All the superintendents favor that approach.
DeHaven said outreach workers have assisted at Edison Junior-Senior High School in Lake Station regarding data analysis, which he found helpful.
"I believe the shift has been toward them trying to help us improve from within as opposed to directives coming from Indianapolis about how things would be," DeHaven said.
Battles between Ritz and Gov. Mike Pence have included his administration's creation of the Center for Education and Career Innovation, called CECI, which Ritz called a power grab because of its mirroring the work the state Department of Education already does; efforts to remove Ritz as chairwoman of the State Board of Education; and a move to make her position appointed rather than elected.
Lux said Ritz has shown fortitude by standing her ground: "She has demonstrated that she is ready to stand up for what she believes in and state the facts."
The superintendents also derided the State Board of Education's considering approving an "adjunct permit," which would allow anyone with a bachelor's degree who passes the state licensing exam to teach, without having any prior teacher training before entering the classroom.
Letz said he does not believe school superintendents and local school boards will hire so-called "adjunct teachers" who do not have the pedagogical training or repertoire of instructional techniques to teach students based on their individual needs, or student-teacher experience.
DeHaven said the demands on and expectations of teachers continue to increase while rulings like this weaken the preparation it takes to become a teacher. "This does not make sense. I do not think we can afford to diminish the preparation it takes to become a good teacher if we want to ensure all students receive a quality education," he said.
Charter schools, vouchers an attack on public education
Local superintendents said data show charter schools, which have operated in the region for about a decade, do not outperform traditional public schools. A National Charter School Study released last June by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found a wide variance in quality among charter schools and pockets of concern in some parts of Indiana. The largest concentration of charter schools in Northwest Indiana is in Gary.
A charter school is a public school that operates under a contract, or charter, entered into between the school's organizer and a charter school authorizer. A school voucher, called an Indiana Choice Scholarship, allows a student to take public tax dollars — normally distributed only to traditional public schools on a per-pupil basis — to a private school of his or her choice.
Lux said charter schools and vouchers separate children based on religion and ability.
"You have to remember that school choice literally means, the school gets to choose," Lux said.
"Parents don't get to choose — they get to apply. Private schools accept on the basis of religion, whether the student acts out in class, or if the parents will be supportive of school policies. They evaluate students to see if they fit the criteria. It allows discrimination based on religion — and supports that with public dollars."
Lux decried what he sees as backward momentum from the values the U.S. once embraced — that everyone has a right to a public education.
"If these schools are so good, and they are using public tax dollars, then take every child who applies," Lux said. "Why should they have a right to choose? Why would this country want to go in the direction of segregating kids and creating basically an educational apartheid of schools?"
Sopko said evidence shows charter schools are not more effective than traditional public schools. "We have the trained people and teachers in our school system. The answer is to support your public school," he said.
More districts will face question of referendums
As school districts continue to face tight budgets, with tax caps, and millions of dollars that once went to public schools being diverted to charter and private schools, the superintendents believe there will be an increasing number of school referendums to raise property taxes in individual districts, further segregating schools between the richer and poorer districts.
The Indiana General Assembly passed Public Law 146 in 2008 establishing referendums for school construction and the general fund as a new mechanism of school funding. It allows school districts to go directly to voters and ask for an increase in property taxes beyond established tax caps.
School districts can ask for a general fund referendum (the general fund supports salaries, benefits and some programs) or a construction referendum (to renovate or build a new building).
Of a total of 102 referendums on the ballot in Indiana since 2008, 102, or 51 percent, have passed, and 50, or 49 percent have failed.
The Metropolitan School District of Boone Township (Hebron) was among the latest districts to win approval — the second time around. Voters approved paying an extra 21 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to raise $479,000 a year for seven years. Of the total vote, 50.67 percent of the voters approved it compared with 49.33 percent who voted against it.
Letz said in a small community like Hebron, something like a referendum divides communities.
"The fact is that the Legislature doesn't fund schools adequately, and you have to go out with your hat in hand and ask voters to pass a referendum," Letz said.
"In our case, we did this two years in a row. This latest time we doubled the number of voters but when all is said and done, you have created so many enemies in your community. It takes years to get over that. That animosity among people is not necessary."
Berta said he is certain Valparaiso schools also will appeal to taxpayers to pass a referendum.
"I don't know if it will be a construction referendum or a general fund referendum or both at the same time," he said. "The board has been discussing this topic. They are currently involved in public meetings. The earliest could be the spring of 2015."
DeHaven said he doesn't ever see a referendum passing in Lake Station. "We have a free/reduced lunch rate of 75 to 80 percent. It's just not going to happen. Coupled with that, our tax collection hovers around 75 percent," he said.
Sopko said he finds it incredible the state has a surplus of $2 billion and continues to "shortchange" public education. Voters in Munster approved a referendum last May.
Sopko said there is not just an assault on the general fund but also on the transportation fund and the capital-projects fund. He said the school district is having difficulty maintaining buildings. He said Munster's capital-projects fund used to be $3 million and has dropped to $1.3 million. He said schools are supposed to replace buses that are 12 years old.
"I submitted a plan to the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance to replace 12 buses, all of which will be 12 years old," he said. "In the past, we had to show the need for it and we were approved. We have enough money only to buy one bus. That becomes a safety issue."
Unless there are changes in the Legislature, the superintendents don't expect to see any improvement in school budgets.
Berta, who has been in education 43 years, said students have different needs than 40 years ago. "We have changed to meet those needs, but the resources we need to meet those needs are dwindling," he said.
Still, Lux is encouraged by the number of young people getting into education. "You always face challenges and obstacles in any profession," Lux said.
"Education is facing monumental changes but there are some enthusiastic, committed and talented people out there ready to take on those challenges."