• Devin Abell

Bottom of the Class: The Crumbling State of the Indiana Education System

Updated: May 11, 2021

The air was frigid— the sun hid behind the gray morning sky that blanketed over Indianapolis. Amidst the ever still and silent wind, a sea of red flowed down Capitol avenue. Amongst the sea, a cry carried throughout its tide, “Red for Ed!”, as it continued ebbing towards the Indiana General Assembly.

Flooding onto the building’s steps and into its hallways, the sea grew into a wave as it climbed the stories— filling them from top to bottom with red. The wave then let out a roar that echoed throughout the chambers, “Enough is enough! Pay teachers now!”

This fierce echo pierced into the committee chambers, bringing the hearings to a standstill. Similar to roaring rapids, the red flushed out the conversation and wreaked havoc on the assembly.

Like watching the Nile river turn red with blood, all the representatives could do is stand by, as the typhoon of red engulfed them in its rage.

Except this red was not water, nor blood— but teachers, students, parents and supports of public education in Indiana.

Thousands of Indiana teachers wearing red, hold rally at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Nov. 19, 2019. Calling for further increasing teacher pay in the largest protest in the state, organized by the The Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA). Photo courtesy of Michael Conroy/AP.

On November 19, 2019, over 20,000 supporters of public education from Indiana descended onto the state's capital for a “Red for Ed” protest to demand state lawmakers invest more into public education.

After decades of stagnant wages and the continuation of the state falling behind in all major public education rankings— public educators reached their limit.

Following the end of 2019 fiscal year, the state of Indiana had a budget surplus of nearly $2.3 billion. Governor Eric Holcomb along with his GOP lead legislature planned to use a small portion of that surplus towards construction projects around the state— while keeping $2 billion of it in the state’s cash reserves.

This decision was met with criticism from not only his political opponents, but from public educators around the state. Educators continued to feel alienated from decision and policy making as lawmakers continue to pass legislation that went against the interest of public education.

Following years of pleading with the Indiana General Assembly to put public education at the top of its priorities and getting no results— educators decided they would no longer be ignored.

The Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA) organized educators from all over the state for a “Red for Ed Action Day” to welcome back lawmakers at the start of their 2020 legislative session.

Thousands of Indiana teachers wearing red surround the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Nov. 19, 2019. The group rallied for an increase in teacher pay and better support towards public education. Photo courtesy of Michael Conroy/AP.

Public educators marched to demand bold action from those at the center of policymaking — Indiana lawmakers and Governor Holcomb.

The only problem was Governor Holcomb wasn't there— he was at a Republican Governors Association meeting in Florida.

“Today is a great opportunity for educators, families and community members to express their voice at the people’s house,” Holcomb said in a statement released the following day. “I remain committed to finding long-term sustainable solutions to increase teacher compensation.”

Earlier that year, Holcomb created a commission to study Indiana’s teacher pay problem and look for solutions. He promised he would make recommendations to the General Assembly ahead of the 2021 budget-writing session.

Although Holcomb created commissions and pledged himself to work to solve the teacher pay issue— it has just been smoke and mirrors.

It’s been nearly 18 months since the Red for Ed Action Day, and Governor Holcomb and his GOP lawmakers have not only continued to ignore public education in Indiana— but work retroactively against it.

The shift away from public education

To understand how Indiana got to where it is now, it is crucial to first understand the different types of school systems.

Following the rise of school choice in the late 20th century, parents who were dissatisfied with their current public education options and didn’t have enough money to send their children to private schools were at a crossroads.

They needed better options to meet their educational needs of their children that the state wasn’t able to provide, without breaking their bank trying to buy private education.

The solution to this problem came with development of public charter schools.

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), a charter school is a school that receives government funding but operates independently of the established state school system in which it is located.

In layman's terms, this means that while charter schools are contractually promised to receive funding by the state, they are exempt from many of the state and local regulations which govern most public schools.

Graphic courtesy of the National School Choice Week Team.

The first charter school system was established in 1991, following Minnesota passing legislation to allow public charter schools in the state. This resulted in a chain of state governments passing legislation to allow charter school systems in their states as well.

Nearly 10 years later, Indiana joined the cause— becoming the 38th state to authorize public charter schools in 2001.

The Indiana General Assembly passed laws that allowed multiple entities to authorize charter schools— without placing a cap on the number of charter schools in the state. The only requirement the state placed on the schools is an equivalent level of accountability as a public school district.

Following the state’s signing of this legislature, public charter schools made their way into Indiana communities. However, upon their arrival, charter schools began to create problems in these communities— particularly in funding.

Since the 1970s, property taxes have been the primary source of revenue for public school funding in the state of Indiana. With Indiana being a mostly rural, blue collar working state, the funding was already scarce in some towns.

Professor of teacher education Ryan Flessner is a professor in Butler University’s College of Education who is well versed in the Indiana educational system after years within the state. Flessner knows firsthand of the disparities poorer communities can face.

“Typically, urban and rural districts have a hard time finding a source of income to get to their schools,” Flessner said. “While wealthy communities have the luxury of either donating to schools or adding referendums to create an additional tax for funding, poorer communities don’t have that choice.”

By adding public charter schools into these already low-funded communities, the already small pot of funds was now being cut in half— splitting between the neighborhood school and the new charter schools.

To make matters worse for these communities, at the end of the 2000s, Indiana began a political shift as it moved towards a GOP gridlock on the state legislature and its policies.

Trying to appeal to voters throughout the rural state, the GOP ran their party’s platform on cutting taxes and capping the amount its constituents would pay on a yearly basis.

In the 2010 midterm elections, Indiana placed an initiative on the general ballot to cap property tax statewide. The initiative received positive reception from voters, and with the GOP taking the trifecta in the state government following the elections— they quickly enacted on the voter’s response.

The state legislature passed bills to cap the amount homeowners could pay on their property taxes. The bill changed the tax codes, establishing that homeowners couldn’t pay more than one percent of the total assessed value of their property in property taxes.

Along with capping property taxes, a GOP lead Indiana General Assembly also eliminated several programs that provided extra funding for high-poverty stricken districts. Including changing the school funding formula to account for the amount families received from welfare into the equation.

These new policies continued to cut the already shrinking pool of funding that is being distributed between the two forms of public-school systems. Resulting in not only inadequate funding for public and charter schools— but failing academic performances.

According to the IndyStar, 42% of Indianapolis Public Schools receive an “F” rating following the Indiana State Board of Education operation standards review in 2016.

More recently in 2019, two-thirds of all public school students in grades 3-8 did not pass the states standardized testing, the ILEARN— posting an all-time low passing rate of 37.1%

For charter schools, they did not fare much better with academic success.

According to the Indiana Department of Education, the 2019 graduation rate for public charter schools was 40%— with its online counterpart not having a single virtual charter school obtaining a graduation rate above 50% in a four year span.

Charter schools also ran into issues with long term sustainability.

In a 15 year study, it was found that around 50% of charter schools close their doors within the first decade of being open. Resulting in not only millions of dollars in state funding to be wasted, but leaving the children who attend those schools to be displaced with the outcome of their education being impacted.

Seeing both the failures of the public schools and public charter schools, the state and the GOP began to look towards other means of correcting the state’s education system.

Voucher program, tax free savings account and its expansion

Beginning in the late 2000s, the state legislature began to realize that neither systems of public education were moving towards solving the education crisis in Indiana. The funding being split between these two school systems only created further problems for both families and their communities.

Searching for solutions to remedy this problem, the GOP led legislature began exploring alternatives to the public option. Already spending millions upon millions of dollars on education funding, the state wanted to find a cheaper solution.

This solution came in the form of private schools and the voucher school program.

In 2011, the Indiana General Assembly passed HB 1003, creating the Indiana Choice Scholarships, better known as the voucher school program.

This bill provided a tax deduction for parents who sent their children to a private school, while also providing state funded choice scholarships to students in families with income that didn’t exceed 150% of the amount required for free or reduced lunch programs. The choice scholarships’ purpose was to pay the costs of tuition for private schools that charge tuition to attend.

The overarching goal of this program was to help lower and middle-class families who were in communities with failing and underfunded public-school systems. The voucher program would allow these families— who otherwise wouldn't— be able to send their children to private schools instead of attending their local public options.

While the program was created with the intentions of helping underprivileged families, it quickly became apparent that the voucher program was not going to work as intended. Vouchers often did not cover the full amount of tuition for private schools.

According to EdChoice’s website, a family of four that make less than $47,638 per year, can receive up to 90% of the state per-student spending amount for their school district. While families of four who make under $59,547 receive up to 70%, and families under $71,456 can receive up to 60%.

“When you give a family $500 to pay a $1200 bill, that’s not really realistic,” Flessner said. “The family is already getting the voucher because their financial situation dictates that they do not have enough income to pay for these private institutions on their own.”

For a family of four to be eligible for the program, the student's family must meet one of the eight eligibility pathways. The first two of these pathways deal with a family’s yearly income.

To remain eligible, a student who received the scholarship the previous year must not exceed a family income of more than $95,275 in the following year. After receiving the scholarship for two or more consecutive years, a student’s family must not exceed a household income of more than $71,456.

Although these incomes don’t put these families into the wealthy category— these range far from a family in need. In Indiana, the state's poverty line for a family of four is $26,200, while the average annual household income in the state is $56,303.

When comparing the state’s data on poverty and average income to the eligibility requirements of the voucher program—it is clear to see that requirements stretch to families well above the intended beneficiaries.

“What’s been happening is that people who aren’t particularly wealthy, but well above the poverty line, are basically getting a coupon for private school.” Flessner said. “It’s not helping lower class people— it’s helping middle class families get their kids into private schools for less money.”

While the intention by the state’s legislature was to create a program to help lower income families have different education opportunities— it did the exact opposite. It only created a further divide between the lower class and their chance to receive quality education opportunities.

The failure of this program, however, has gone unpronounced in the Indiana General Assembly and GOP— as they are now currently working to expand the program.

At the beginning of the 2021 legislative session, the GOP led legislature introduced HB 1005 to the state's house of representatives. HB 1005 has two main goals— to further expand the state’s voucher program, and to create Indiana’s first education savings account.

The GOP promotes this bill as a “win for parents to decide how their children are educated.” However, upon a deeper look, it only further ostracizes the lower class.

The bill proposes an increase of eligibility for the Indiana Choice Scholarship by expanding the program to allow families of four with an annual income up to $145,000 to qualify for a voucher.

This would mean the increase of eligibility would expand to families who make more than twice the median household income, and nearly six times more than the poverty line in Indiana— only further incentivizing the program towards upper income families.

In addition to expanding the voucher program, the bill also proposes the creation of tax-free education saving accounts for families. The idea of these accounts is to allow families to put aside funds in a savings account— that can’t be taxed by the government— and use the funds to pay for educational expenses.

Yet again, at face value, it gives the impression that it would be beneficial to families that need to save every last bit of income in order to pay for educational expenses. However, once it is put into practice—Flessner fears that it will only help unintended beneficiaries.

“For families with income to pay for private school, this is great for [them] because it saves them money,” Flessner said. “But if [a family doesn’t] have any money to put into that account— it’s not helpful for [them].”

On top of the proposed bill being disproportionately favored to wealthier families over the lower income families—the bill is expected to be costly.

The most recent fiscal analysis reports that the legislation would cost the state over $66 million through 2022. Coupled with the $172.7 million the state spent on choice scholarships in 2019— it is expected that passing of this bill will increase voucher school programs to take up one-third of the state’s education budget going forward.

This would result in the state’s already decimated budget towards education to be split three different ways between multiple public and private school systems.

Public educators and their supporters line the sidewalk of East Market Street to protest HB 1005, that if passed, would funnel millions of state funds into private education, Tuesday, March 16 2021, Logansport, IN. Photo courtesy of Jonah Hinebaugh/Pharos-Tribune.

Looking at this predicament from a financial standpoint, it would be obvious to anyone that this distribution of state funds between the multiple educational entities will not proactively solve the ongoing issue of funding towards public education. Nor will it solve the discrepancies that underprivileged families face in Indiana’s education system.

The GOP is pushing this bill as something that gives families choices— “equal opportunity” as their party likes to promote. However, equal opportunity does not necessarily result in equal outcome or equity— especially when equal opportunity is not so equal.

Even under the pretense of “equal opportunity”, the legislation fails to even meet that standard, as its policies are beneficial only to those who can afford it. Policies like these breed from far-right ideologies—something the GOP has been doing since it gained the trifecta in the state legislature in 2010.

“Indiana is a hotbed for far-right legislative activity across the country because they know they have a very friendly state legislature,” Flessner said. “A lot of experimentation has been happening in Indiana... a lot of funding across the nation has been funneled into Indiana to make those changes happen.”

This results in the GOP being able to enact policies that suit their party’s agenda— when in reality, it just creates more issues.

“The solutions people create for education are just bandages that fix a symptom of the problem, instead of actually addressing the problem itself.” Flessner said.

For the foreseeable future, the GOP will continue to enact their “bandage policies” as they face no real threat to their power in the state. It is more than likely the Indiana General Assembly will pass HB 1005 and voucher programs will be expanded.

GOP lawmakers assure the public that they firmly believe this policy will be the “saving grace” to improve the lives of educators and families around that state.

However, if their past policies have instilled anything into families and educators of Indiana, it’s that this bandage won’t work, and the wound will only get bigger.

The effects on public schools

With the funding for education being pulled in three different ways, the aftereffects on the public education system are devastating— especially to its teachers.

Graphic courtesy of the Indiana Democratic Party.

Washington Township special education teacher Erin Cuevas has been at the receiving end of this detrimental issue.

“State funding is a huge issue in our district,” Cuevas said. “I personally do not know how much money we receive in funding from the state. I do know, we do not receive enough to meet the basic needs.”

While Cuevas has been used to not having all the tools necessary, these issues for Cuevas have become more apparent to her throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When our school was shut down in the spring of 2020 due to the pandemic, many teachers pulled from their own pockets to make sure their kids had enough food, books, supplies, etc,” Cuevas said.

Even after the state’s education department received federal funding for PPE equipment, teachers were still forced to make do with minimal equipment their school could provide.

“We were given one spray bottle of disinfectant, one box of paper towels, one desk shield, one cloth face mask, one bottle of hand sanitizer, and one face shield,” Cuevas said. “Once our paper towels ran out, we were given lunchroom napkins because that is all that could be provided.”

In regards to the more high valued equipment, teachers had to reach into their own pockets in order to have mandated necessary protective supplies.

“Once our disinfectant spray ran out, that was it. You had to ask around and hope other teachers had some they could spare or go out and buy your own,” Cuevas said.

School districts forcing their teachers to buy their own protective equipment is no small request of them, as teacher pay has also taken a huge hit from the undercutting of funding.

According to the Nation Education Association (NEA) 2016 Rankings of States and Estimates of School Statistics,Indiana ranked 34th in average teacher salary, and their rank is dropping fast.

The report by the NEA also found Indiana’s average teacher pay dropped nearly $10,000, from $59,986 in 2000 to $50,554 in 2016. This ranks the Hoosier state 51st in the nation in terms of teacher salary increases— dead last in the country.

Graphic courtesy of the Indiana Democratic Party.

“There’s the saying that everyone loves to tell teachers, ‘you did not sign up for this career for the money,’” Cuevas said.

“This may be true; many teachers do not go into the field for the money. But many teachers, like myself and many of my coworkers, end up getting a second or even third job because there is not enough money to support our own families on a teacher’s salary alone and the love of teaching and kids cannot pay the bills.”

Crooked Creek elementary kindergarten teacher Jen Lyons district’s funding is in a better position than most schools in her area. However, even with the school being able to regularly increase their teachers pay, it still doesn’t meet the teachers’ needs.

“Teachers raises typically hardly hit the inflation rate and cost of living increases,”

Lyons said. “They try to make it up with stipends and bonuses, but it doesn’t always work out.”

Although teachers face harsh conditions and inadequate salaries, the group that suffers the most is the people they do it all for— the students.

Junior elementary education major Emma Marchel is a future educator who has begun to work

in the Indianapolis community with partnered Butler University lab schools.

Throughout her observations and visits with different schools, Marchel saw how much

district funding had an effect on children in poorer communities within the Indianapolis Public

School system (IPS).

Emma Marchel during her classroom observations at a IPS school. Marchel along with other Butler University education majors have the opportunity through the Butler lab school programs to get real world experience in classrooms around Indianapolis. Photo courtesy of Emma Marchel.

“The biggest thing that made me realize the funding difference is during the pandemic, working online, my class was paired with kindergarteners and second graders,” Marchel said.

“I had a classmate who was paired with a kindergartener telling her that she is home alone during the day because her mom had to work, and she had no other family members, and they couldn’t afford daycare.”

Marchel has also had the opportunity to visit a school on the other side of the spectrum. In her second half of observation, Marchel got to visit Sycamore school, a private school in northwest Indianapolis for gifted children.

“The school was completely different from the IPS school,” Marchel said. “It had all different kinds of technology and access to different STEM classes and different opportunities... typically in IPS, that something you don’t see all the time”

The difference to Marchel between these two schools was night and day, showing the disparities that public schools have to deal with compared to their private school counterparts.

The difference between educators and their students in the public school system is few and far between. They both bear the brunt of what has become of the underfunded wasteland that is known as public education in Indiana.

While supporters of public education continue to advocate for better situations for their teachers and students— the future of public education doesn’t appear it’ll get any brighter.

The future of education in Indiana

As the Indiana education system continues to move forward into the future— it’s a race to see which school system will collapse first.

Public schools in rural and poorer communities continue to see a downward spiral in their students' performances. According to the IndyStar, from 2020 to 2021, failure rates in Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) doubled among its students, as attendance and test scores continued to fall.

On the other hand, charter schools haven’t been very successful either.

The Pence-Holcomb administrations have had to invest an upwards of $90 billion to bail out failing charter schools that received “D” or “F” ratings.

On top of funding failing charter schools, some charter schools have taken advantage of their ability to be virtual. In 2020, it was found that two virtual charter schools collected more than $68.7 million in tax dollars by inflating student enrollment numbers for years.

With both public options struggling to survive, many have turned to private schools. Still, these schools also face troubles themselves.

Although the state and legislature is pushing to expand the voucher program, if HB 1005 doesn’t get passed through, private schools who receive a “D” or “F” rating by the state still won’t be able accept new students through the use of the state voucher program.

This means the average Indiana family won’t be able to afford the costs of private school without the voucher— leaving Indiana families with no place left to turn.

The state is trying to remedy this issue by continuing to push non-traditional forms of education, over the public traditional option, on its constituents. However, due to the inconsistencies of these alternative options, it leaves future educators like Marchel with some skepticism.

“The [GOP is] trying to argue that the difference might not show right now, but in five to ten years we’re going to see the expansion [of charter and private schools],” Marchel said. “More kids are going to have options to go to private and charter schools— but I don’t see that as the reality.”

The reality of the situation is that pushing for these alternative options is just like putting a band-aid over the deep-rooted issue of ignoring public schools, and according to Flessner it’s failing.

“The band aids aren’t working anymore because we have gushing wounds that are going to bite us in the butt as a society,” Flessner said.

Moving into the next decade, the gushing wound will only get bigger, as Indiana is on the verge of entering a teacher shortage in the future.

According to Chalkbeat Indiana, only one in six teachers Indiana college students who study education get their teaching licenses in the state of Indiana.

Future educators in high learning institutions are taking notice of the situation at hand in the Indiana education system and are leaving the state in search of greener pastures.

For those who stay however, like Marchel, understand the hardships they will face as future educators in the state.

“I know I’m not going to be in a school that can provide everything for my students,” Marchel said. “So, I’m going to have to find a way to use my resources in the best way I can.”

Although Marchel plans on staying in Indiana for a few years following her graduation, she understands a long-term teaching gig in the state isn’t plausible.

“With the low salaries and inflation on the cost of living— the money will be difficult,” Marchel said. “At some point I will have to make a decision on whether I want to stay in Indiana or not.”

While future educators like Marchel are debating whether they should stay or go, current educators like Cuevas are leaving Indiana in droves.

“I am choosing to leave the education field because the education system in Indiana as a whole is failing.” Cuevas said. “There is so much the state depends on its schools and educators to provide for children and families that we simply do not have the resources or money to do accurately and effectively.”

Due to the failures of the state to support public educators like Cuevas, her passion for teaching has been stripped away by the economic burdens the profession has placed on her.

“I love teaching [kids] and helping them grow into respectful and helpful members of their own communities. I cannot stay though. I cannot let my own family receive so little from me because I am constantly pouring into my kids at school,” Cuevas said.

The burdens that Cuevas and other teachers face from their occupation often seep over into their everyday lives, causing them to extend themselves beyond their allotted hours and put their job ahead of their own personal well-being.

“I cannot think of another profession where people are expected to overwork themselves and made to feel guilty for taking any time to take care of themselves and their own families,” Cuevas said.

As teachers like Cuevas leave the field, up and coming educators like Marchel understand that the road ahead will be difficult to create lasting change in not only the education system in Indiana— but as a whole.

“I’m starting to understand why it’s important to be an advocate for the profession,” Marchel said. “Why it’s important to advocate for policy, whether that’s at the state or school level.”

Emma Marchel (bottom row, third from right) and her fellow education majors from Butler University prior to attending the "Red for Ed" march on the Indiana General Assembly in Indianapolis, IN, November 19, 2019. Marchel and her classmates took a day off from their course studies to attend and support public school educators throughout the state. Photo courtesy of Emma Marchel.

While the education system will continue to struggle in Indiana for the foreseeable future, it’s going to take a great deal of change in policy and how the state values education in order for that to happen.

And in order for that change— families, educators, and lawmakers have to come together and put their focus on what is doing the best for the children and those who educate them.

This change needs to be as big as the ocean, diving deep to address the root causes of the issues the education system faces, and engulfing causes with a big red wave of solutions.

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