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November 19, 2012

A new way of thinking?

GOP leaders in Statehouse predict some review of education reforms

INDIANAPOLIS — Republican legislative leaders stung by the defeat of the state schools superintendent say Indiana lawmakers may take a closer look at how some of the sweeping education reforms in K-12 schools have been implemented.

At the Indiana Chamber of Commerce’s legislative preview luncheon Monday, House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long repeated their earlier pledges not to rollback the GOP-backed reforms that are locked into law.

But both opened the door for more discussion — and possible changes — to how some of those education-overhaul laws, including teacher assessments and the A-to-F grading of schools, have been put into practice.

The trigger: The Nov. 6 upset election of Democrat Glenda Ritz, fueled by the fury of teachers impacted hard by the reforms, over Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett.

“The election of Glenda Ritz gives us an opportunity to have that discussion in a different format,” Bosma said.

“I’m surrounded by teachers on all fronts,” he added, after counting off the number of the teachers in his family. “They have taken it on the chin.”

Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, an Anderson Democrat, said Ritz’s election is a signal from voters:

“They were basically saying, ‘Slow down and let’s take a look at what we’re doing.’ “

In their respective positions, Bosma and Long presided over the GOP-controlled legislature that pushed through the major education laws that, among other things, created vouchers for private schools, tied teacher-pay to student test-scores, and expanded high-stakes testing for students.

Neither backed off their support for those laws. But they also sounded more conciliatory than they and other GOP leaders did the day after Ritz was elected; at the time, Republicans claimed their legislative wins were affirmation that voters endorsed the reforms.

During Monday’s Chamber luncheon — at which legislative leaders weighed in on the 2013 session that begins in January — Long described teachers as heroic. He also said they needed to be paid more money for the work they do, and agreed with Bosma that teachers were feeling demoralized in the wake of the reforms.

Long also described Ritz’s low-budget, high-impact campaign against Bennett as “game-changing” in the way it used social media to tap into teachers and their supporters. Ritz, a political newcomer, got more votes in her race than Republican Gov.-elect Mike Pence got in his.

“When you see someone outspent 10-to-1 win, it’s an eye-opener,” Long said.

“I’m not in any way pulling back my support for any of the education reforms …” Long added. “But they will evolve and everyone at the table will participate.”

On other issues, Long and Bosma repeated their doubts about a campaign promise by made Pence to cut the state’s income tax rate by 10 percent. They said the legislature in the last session already moved to reduce taxes, by phasing out the inheritance tax and reducing Indiana’s corporate taxes.

“We’ve already done tax reform,” said Long.  Echoed Bosma: “David is setting the right tone.”

Both men cautioned about an uncertain economy that could affect the state’s surplus by reducing revenues from the state’s sales tax. They also noted that gaming revenues from the state’s casinos are on a steady downward decline, and face more pressure as neighboring states open more gambling venues.

Bosma also said the state has already made necessary budget cuts and still has financial obligations to keep. “We absolutely will live within our means,” Bosma said. “That’s the key. The fiscal fog is thick.”

Bosma and Long later told reporters that Pence did not consult with them prior to unveiling the tax-cut pledge. Pence, in a press conference the day after his election, said the tax cut remained his top priority.

— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at Maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com

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