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April 24, 2014

THEIR OPINION — For April 24

Recent editorials published in Indiana newspapers. Distributed by The Associated Press

Indiana needs open primary elections

Indiana’s primary election system is dysfunctional. What the state really needs is an open primary system.

This month, the Lake County election board argued about the procedures for recruiting high school students as poll workers for the May 6 primary election. Should they be recruited separately by Republicans and Democrats? Together?

It’s a reminder that Indiana goes to the expense of running these elections to winnow out the contenders for the two major political parties, not necessarily to get the two best contenders for the job.

In an open primary, voters don’t have to declare themselves to be either Democrat or Republican. Instead, they get a ballot that lists all the candidates, as well as nonpartisan decisions like referendums or school board races. The top Republican and the top Democrat vote-getters advance to the general election.

Indiana’s primary splits Republicans and Democrats into separate ballots. It’s as if each party is holding its own function, under government supervision, at the same place and time.

Voters shouldn’t have to ask for a Democrat or Republican ballot, in effect declaring their party allegiance. Indiana’s existing system excludes voters who don’t want to be identified with a party — often, the moderates — and yields extremists who curry favor with the party faithful rather than moderate candidates who stand a better chance of being elected in the general election.

Switching to an open primary, in which the top vote-getter for each party is placed on the ballot in the general election, would help ease the gridlock in Washington that comes with polarization.

Sure, open primaries would weaken the grip each political party has on the electoral process, but this should be about governance for the people, not about political gain for the parties.

Elect candidates capable of compromise who will represent the vast middle rather than the extremists in either party.

Stop disenfranchising voters who don’t want to declare a party allegiance. Stop restricting their ability to vote for the candidate of their choice in every race.

— The Times, Munster

Indiana’s approach to teacher evaluations is much too soft

Indiana’s system for evaluating how well its 55,000 public school teachers are doing their jobs smacks of absurdity on multiple levels.

Absurdity No. 1: The ratings released by the Indiana Department of Education this month are clearly inflated. About 97 percent of teachers who were evaluated landed in the highest two categories -- “highly effective” and “effective.” Only about 2 percent were rated as “needs improvement.” And less than one-half of one percent -- about 200 teachers statewide — received the lowest rating of “ineffective.”

In fact, 60 school districts in the state claimed that they have no teachers who are ineffective in the classroom or even any who need to improve their job performance.

The tendency for managers to overrate employees’ performance is common across many professions and industries. It’s so pervasive, in fact, that a decade or so ago, some businesses adopted rating systems that forced managers to put as many as 10 percent of workers in the lowest performance category.

Critics have pushed back against that approach as too arbitrary and harmful to employee morale. But Indiana’s system for ranking teachers’ performance takes the opposite approach -- almost everyone, according to the state, is doing a good job — and as a result doesn’t reflect reality.

“Clearly the system failed,” State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry said. “We have to find a new way to get accurate, fair results for our teachers so we can continue to improve our schools and our students’ experiences in the classroom.”

Absurdity No. 2: The ratings don’t match results. A lot of data measuring student achievement is available, some encouraging and some deeply discouraging, but there’s a bottom line statistic that can’t be ignored: Indiana ranks 42nd in the nation in the education level of its workforce. That’s a fatal flaw for a state that must compete in a global economy where a good education is increasingly an essential commodity.

Educators argue, and rightly so, that they’re not fully responsible for that statistic and other key indicators. Education attainment has been undercut by Indiana’s long history as a strong manufacturing base, which for decades inadvertently weakened the value of an education; growing poverty rates in the state; and in many cases, a frustrating lack of parental support.

But taxpayers invest so heavily in schools -- 53 cents of every dollar in the state budget goes to K-12 education -- precisely because state leaders and the public recognize the importance of education to Indiana’s future. The problem is that taxpayers’ aren’t getting sufficient return on their investment.

In short, the results need to improve. But how do we do that when 97 percent of teachers have been told that their job performance is satisfactory, or better?

Absurdity No. 3: Some state leaders want to reward performance that’s less than satisfactory. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz floated the idea that even those 2 percent of teachers saddled with “needs improvement” rankings should receive pay raises.

What a terrible message that would send to the teachers who push themselves to excel. And what a mixed message it would send to teachers who aren’t meeting expectations.

Let’s reward great teachers with strong compensation. But don’t dilute limited resources by handing out more money to those who aren’t getting the job done.

Indiana, without doubt, can boast of many great educators. Yet, it’s also evident that student achievement and school performance need to improve if our state is to better compete in the global marketplace. We won’t get better, however, if there’s not an accurate assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of our frontline educators.

— The Indianapolis Star

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