Today I went to a public forum with Indiana State Senator Jeff Raatz, organized by Wayne County Indivisible at the Innovation Center in Richmond. It was attended by people from all over Wayne County, many of them teachers, and so the focus was understandably on the many challenges facing our education system.
The conversation was at times tense as the questions being asked were thoughtful, hard ones, and it was impressive to see the passion of audience members as they came with context, details, statistics and possible solutions. I think Senator Raatz did a reasonable job of engaging with those questions and listened when he was challenged, which was often. He didn’t always answer the questions asked, and perhaps relied a bit too much on the “this is hard, it’s too complex to offer an answer” response, especially given that he’s the chair of the Senate Education Committee. As one audience member said, “we’re here looking to you for answers and action.” Hopefully progress was made.
Since the event wasn’t recorded, I covered the event “live” on Twitter, and I’m sharing the results here in case it’s useful to anyone who wasn’t present:
We’re getting started, welcomed by Nancy Bowen from Wayne County Indivisible. Their regular meetings are first and third Thursdays at 6PM at First Friends meeting. Their main goal is holding elected officials accountable through education and events. Format will be 5-7 mins for the Senator to talk about education issues, then he’ll questions from attendees. Raatz starts with the pronunciation of his last name, “rahtz” not “rats.”
Raatz says he’s in his fifth year in the state senate; being in the legislature is hard because he wants to get things right and doesn’t want to make anyone upset. He’s had a focus on education.
Now to audience questions, the first about state funding of religiously-affiliated education. Hundreds of millions of state dollars go to charter schools in a given year, and funding is increasing faster than for public schools. A majority of IN charter schools are religious. Raatz says this funding is not necessarily taking away from public schools. He says if we took it away from charter schools (not vouchers, which are different), Wayne County public school funding would not be affected. Raatz says on the voucher side of things, money flows to parents and then the schools, not necessarily best set up but how it is.
Audience member notes vouchers are essentially refunds that exempt people from paying for public education, which hurts communities like Richmond. Raatz says he can’t argue the details of that point because he doesn’t know. Another audience member talks about the history of the “school choice” movement and how it enables racial segregation and profiteering in education while draining money from public schools.
Another audience member suggests that Raatz never answered the specific original question about private school funding. Some back-and-forth about whether Raatz is being evasive, and whether he’s being respected by the audience. An audience member from Western Wayne says they’re being hit hard by vouchers/school choice. Affluent people are making choices that keep their kids away from other kids living in poverty, which further fragments the community. Lots of audience agreement.
Audience members: the evidence against this system is so strong and the burden of proof has shifted to these charter schools to justify continuing it. Studies are showing the results are not there. Why are we continuing to support it? Raatz doesn’t answer that question, says he thinks there are conflicting results about school performance, but that he “hasn’t studied it.” He contends the “breakdown of the family” contributes to the problem to when it comes to poverty and education issues.
Audience member asks why the state is funding poorly performing “virtual” charter schools. Raatz says they’re trying to figure it out and increase accountability, but says ending that program altogether isn’t the right way. “We’ve got a long ways to go.” More discussion about how virtual charter schools may be wasting tax dollars, duplicating what public schools offer, misleading parents about offerings. Raatz suggests there are too many variables to say for sure, audience is in agreement that more public school funding is key.
Audience member notes that church-based schools are strongly incentivized to continue the current system, change has to happen in the statehouse, asks Raatz to listen to taxpayers instead of to the church.
A new question on gun violence in schools: what can Raatz do at the statehouse to limit easy access to guns for teenagers in our community? We’re scared for the safety of our students. Raatz says there’s discussion about requiring parents to secure weapons, but difficult to do. Raatz: thinking back to the Dennis incident, things “rolled out wonderfully” and additional deaths were prevented, but tragedy that one young man died. Talked about need to address mental health, but he doesn’t have ideas beyond that.
Another audience member brings it back to funding: not enough resources now to address challenges with students who struggle, we need more help from the state. Another suggests stricter enforcement for mishandling of firearms, limiting magazines, getting rid of assault rifles. The audience thanks Raatz for being here, a round of applause. Raatz affirms that he knows how critical education is and appreciates the discussion, even if it’s hard on him to be subjected to a grilling like this one. He’s open to making changes.
Audience q: if public schools can do all the things that charter schools provide, why not use those funds to support the public school system instead? Raatz: decline in relative quality of U.S. education meant changes were needed, still various dilemas in budgeting to figure out. Teacher poverty and retention comes up. “It’s a revolving door.” Wages are declining and teachers can make more money, get better benefits working at a gas station than in one audience member’s school environment. Raatz: 2 years ago, we changed how “complexity index” determining school funding was calculated, but didn’t consider how economic improvement would hurt – not good. Richmond schools lost money.
Audience q: why do you think answer to teacher shortage is hiring less qualified teachers? Raatz: a bill he sponsored was about adjusting qualifications, to help backfill open slots, not replace anyone. He voted against tuition assistance in nursing too, $ struggles everywhere. A teacher struggling with economics of his career & compensation asks Raatz where to look for hope in this situation. Raatz: not sure what to offer, knows it’s a struggle, wonders what state can do with declining school enrollment.
Question: how do we level the playing field for rural schools – minimum salary requirement? Raatz: suggested giving more money to school systems wouldn’t necessarily help, but school board members present said it would. Audience agrees IN not taking ed funding seriously enough.
New q: what can we do about corporate welfare, institutions not paying taxes as our schools are under-funded due to cuts? Property tax caps and exemptions need to be revisited. Raatz: he’s happy to look into it. Some ongoing discussion within the audience about the sense that there’s an ideological war on public education. “Teachers feel demoralized and bombarded, a lot of it coming from the legislature.”
The event ends with another round of applause, to Raatz for attending and for everyone for bringing great questions.