By JEROD CLAPP
Now that reform has been implemented, Gov. Mike Pence said Tuesday it’s time for Indiana’s legislature to focus on education innovation.
Pence’s address on his education agenda for 2014 in Corydon’s First Capitol Building focused on how to make pre-kindergarten education available to poor families, creation of more teacher incentives and finding ways to let charter schools house themselves in vacant public school buildings.
With a number of students still struggling in the state, he said, the agenda is aimed at continuing the upward trend of Indiana’s test scores and graduation rates. With 200,000 students in underperforming schools and 10,000 graduates in need of remediation in college, Pence thinks the state can do better.
“I think we can agree that we are not yet educating every Hoosier kid in a fantastic way, so I believe there is still a lot to do,” he said. “That’s why I believe we should pursue bold objectives in this short session of our legislature. We need to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship among our teachers, create incentives for the best charter operators to come to Indiana, free up unused property, and create opportunity for students in a tough place, whether they’re 4 years old or 40.”
But the potential elimination of a revenue stream for school districts — the proposed business personal property tax legislation — leaves superintendents and other district officials concerned about how they’ll foot the bill for some of the governor’s new initiatives.
State Rep. Terry Goodin, D-Austin, said that in 2012 the business personal property tax generated about $1 billion for local Hoosier communities. If that tax is eliminated, it would not only affect school districts, but constituents may feel the pain instead of businesses.
“If there’s a billion dollars, which is estimated what’s lost, it’s going to be pushed onto local homeowners,” said Goodin, superintendent of Crothersville Community Schools. “It’s going to be a huge tax shift. Instead of saying a ‘tax cut,’ [Pence] probably should use the term ‘tax shift.’ It’s a shift from the corporations to local communities, and that’s going to have a huge impact.
“A billion dollars is a lot of money.”
Pence said after his address that with Michigan considering phasing out its business personal property tax, Kentucky’s significantly lower tax and Ohio’s and Illinois’ absence of it altogether, it’s time for Indiana to look at it, too.
“As we looked at a broad range of areas of tax reform in Indiana, I just came to the conclusion that phasing out the business personal property tax is an idea whose time has come,” Pence said. “But I think it’s important to do it in a way that doesn’t disadvantage local communities or local schools and I’m confident that we can do that.”
Neither Andrew Melin, superintendent of Greater Clark County Schools, nor Bruce Hibbard, superintendent of the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp., knew the exact impact they’ll see if the tax is eliminated, but any loss of revenue is a concern.
“Obviously, I’m a K-12 public school advocate,” Melin said. “It’s been pretty challenging for us for several years now to make ends meet. From a budget perspective, anytime there’s a potential for dollars to go elsewhere other than to help our K-12 public educational system, it’s of grave concern.”
Tom Dykiel, chief financial officer for Greater Clark, said if the tax is eliminated, it would inflate tax rates for everyone.
State Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, said there’s some risk with eliminating the tax and it needs careful consideration before it’s implemented.
“I’m glad we’re starting to have discussions about the personal property tax. I think we need to approach it cautiously because there is a risk of creating winners and losers,” Clere said. “If we’re going to do something, we need to avoid that. I’d love to eliminate the personal property tax, but I don’t want to do it on the backs of local government. I’m open to looking at any proposal, including the governor’s.
“I just want to proceed cautiously and with eyes wide open,” Clere added. “Any solution would need to be carefully crafted and designed for long-term sustainability for both the state and local governments.”
Pence also discussed ways to reward teachers, outside of merit pay, for taking on difficult assignments or finding particularly effective ways to educate students.
He proposed creating a new teacher innovation fund to give grants for teachers who “have the best, scalable ideas for improving student outcomes.” The money could be used for classroom supplies so teachers don’t have to pay out of their own pockets.
He also discussed the possibility of a “Choices for Teachers” program, which would give a stipend to teachers who elect to teach in underperforming schools or charter schools with a high percentage of poor students. Goodin said he thinks the governor’s proposal to spend more money in charter schools with poor students speaks volumes about the move to support them in the last 15 years.
“To do that is basically ceding the fact that their experiment over the last decade and a half has been a failure,” Goodin said. “The Democrats, what we’ve preached for and asked for the last decade and a half is trying to properly fund public schools and properly fund traditional schools. He has finally come over to that idea and really seen the light now.”
Clere said he sees things much differently because districts, charter and private schools all have their share of low-income students.
“I support school choice, including access to public charters and private schools,” Clere said, “but not at the expense of public education. Many disadvantaged students have gained access to educational opportunities that were previously unavailable to them as a result of the charter and voucher initiatives.”
Kim Knott, superintendent of Clarksville Community Schools, said she’s not opposed to the idea of teacher incentives, especially since her district has implemented a compensation model for the last three years, but she’s concerned about how something like that will continue to exist for the foreseeable future.
“I’m not opposed to incentivizing and doing bonuses, I’m concerned, again, when we talk about accountability that not all schools are or have implemented the law as intended,” Knott said. “I’m concerned when I hear that we’re going to create programs using what I consider one-time money and how they’re going to be sustained.”
In the last three years, school corporations in Clark and Floyd counties have dealt with closing schools and aging properties in different ways. Once charter school and voucher expansion began in 2011, they worked to find ways to either keep them out of the hands of charter operators by holding on to or getting rid of them.
Pence said with some districts spending as much as $25 million to maintain vacant properties, he’d like to create a council to look at vacant properties statewide and figure out how to make it possible for charter schools to lease them.
As an example, George Rogers Clark Elementary in Clarksville Community Schools closed in 2010. A teacher tried to secure the building for a new charter school, the York Academy of Discovery, but the charter wasn’t granted.
The district moved to get rid of the property, successfully selling it to Safe Harbour Community Church in October 2012.
Knott said she understands Pence’s move.
“It doesn’t surprise me knowing what the law was prior to the governor being elected and taking office, he’s just going to, for lack of a better term, ramp it up a notch,” Knott said. “[Having] an outside committee looking at it, I’m sure he’s doing that for reasons. I don’t want to speculate on what those reasons are, but in our situation, we knew there were people looking at that building to use it as a possible charter school. We understand that marketplaces here in public education. We were very fortunate that a church bought that school and they’re making great use of that building.”
Greater Clark County Schools has also tried to get rid of the old Corden Porter School, but an agreement with the city of Jeffersonville never passed. New Albany-Floyd County Schools has come up with a plan for one of the schools it closed in 2010 — Galena Elementary School — as part of its facilities plan.
Goodin said he’d like to see the decision on how school resources are treated left to local entities rather than the state.
“I think they probably should be decided by the local school board since they’re the representatives of the taxpayers of the community,” Goodin said. “The school board is the one that went out on a limb and had that building built, whether it was 20 or 30 years ago. They’re the ones who hold the key to those buildings. I’m also open to the fact that they’re not using them, but that should be the local school board’s decision.”
Clere said while he supports the idea, he’d also like to see school boards involved in the decision making of their own assets.
“I’m all for making the best possible use of unused buildings and I think in some cases, that may be as a school building with a different education provider, such as be a charter school,” Clere said. “But we also need to preserve and respect local decision-making, so I’d like to see us create a better framework for local decision makers to do the right thing by both students and taxpayers. But I wouldn’t want to take away all local control.”
Pence also said he’s not sure what a program for implementing pre-kindergarten education across the state would look like, but there are several options he’d like the legislature to consider.
“First you decide where you ought to go and then you decide how you’re going to get there,” Pence said. “I just came to the conclusion after traveling and visiting some extraordinary pre-K programs in the state of Indiana, that our state should make a commitment to open the way for pre-K education to disadvantaged kids.”
Whether that’s implemented through a voucher program for families below the 150 percent poverty lines or other means, he thinks it would help those students — who seem to perform at a lower level than other students — succeed in their education.
Pence isn’t sure how much it would ultimately cost the state and though the upcoming legislative session isn’t a budget session, he wants the legislature move forward on the initiative.