Education On The Front Burner At Legislative Review Session

District 18 State Rep. Dave Wolkins (L), who is retiring at year’s end, speaks with Craig Snow after the Legislative Review Session Friday. Snow is one of three candidates vying for Wolkins’ seat down at the Statehouse. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.

While a variety of topics were touched on Friday at the Legislative Review Session, the discussion kept returning to education issues like school funding, teacher pay and virtual schools.

Hosted by the Kosciusko Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club at the Shrine Building in Warsaw, the session’s panel included Republican State Sen. Ryan Mishler (District 9) and Republican State Reps. Dave Wolkins (D-18) and Curt Nisly (D-22). Of the over 900 bills filed in the House and Senate, Wolkins said many of them had to do with education.

Virtual Schools
During the question-and-answer session, a man asked, “Are we still paying 90% for virtual schools of what we’re paying for brick-and-mortar facilities? That was my understanding a year ago. And who is responsible for the fraud that’s been involved in some of these schools that have taken state funding?”

An Associated Press story states that two Indiana online charter schools that have been under federal investigation over allegations of padding their enrollments inappropriately paid nearly $86 million to companies linked to the schools’ founder or his associates, according to a new state audit report.

The State Board of Accounts review, dated Wednesday, found the Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy wrongly received $68.7 million in state payments by improperly claiming about 14,000 students as enrolled between 2011 and 2019, even though they had no online course activity.

Both schools, which had a shared administration and last year reported about 7,200 students, shut down in August after state education officials cut off funding based on initial estimates of $40 million in enrollment overpayments, according to the Associated Press.
To the man’s question, Mishler said, “I’ve been screaming for years that I think they’ve got out-of-state kids, I think they’re falsifying the number of kids they have. So before last budget year, I put virtuals on notice that I was going to cut them to 50%. And that got their attention.”

He said every year, the House moves virtual schools up, and the Senate tries to move them back “so that’s how they got to 90(%).” The House’s fiscal body wants to treat virtual schools the same as brick-and-mortars, Mishler said. This year, he said, he got them to go down to 80 or 85%. Mishler said not only did the virtual schools “falsify the number of students they had,” but they also “siphoned off the money. The five top executives formed ghost LLCs and did billing to the schools for millions of dollars – $87 million got shifted over to these five individuals through these companies.”

When he learned about all of this, Mishler said he got upset with the Department of Education that always tells him they can track every kid, but obviously that didn’t happen here. Asked about what the state legislature was doing to prevent the fraud from ever happening again, Mishler said what’s happened so far has been turned into the attorney general’s office. He is hoping someone will be prosecuted for it and said all the information is public record.

“As far as moving forward, I think we have to work with the DOE to really tighten up how they monitor some of the virtual schools,” Mishler said. Another issue the state has is that the state lent money – millions of dollars – to charter schools, which have now left the state. “How are we going to get that money back? So what I’ve said is I want to make the authorizer responsible,” Mishler said.

Kosciusko County Community Foundation Associate Director Stephanie Overbey asked, “Fraud aside, it doesn’t make sense to me that a virtual student – without the overhead and the facility and the cafeteria worker, and, and, and – would need anywhere close to a student who is going to a brick-and-mortar school. So aside from fraud, what was the logic behind equal funding for a virtual school versus someone who is actually going to a (brick-and-mortar) school?”

Mishler said he didn’t think there was any logic, that it was the House’s decision. He said he didn’t see how a virtual school would need as much money as a brick-and-mortar school, but yet the House still passed “that budget over at 100%.”

School Testing
“You know we had the Red for Ed Day, 20,000 teachers showed up. We did some things because of that,” Wolkins said at the start of his comments Friday. Indiana went to ILEARN for state testing, with only 37% of students passing certain parts of it.

“It’s a fiasco. So one of the things we wanted to do – because schools get graded, letter grades, and teachers get evaluated on how well their students are doing, so one thing both the House, the Senate and the governor agreed is that we’re not going to hold those test results against the schools and against the teachers at least for a couple of years,” Wolkins said, adding that Governor Eric Holcomb has signed the “Hold Harmless” bill. Students scores have been “decoupled” from teacher evaluations, Wolkins said.

Continuing Education
Three things teachers “supposedly” came to Indianapolis for back in November for Red for Ed Day was teacher pay, “Hold Harmless” and continuing education, Wolkins said.

“Right now, to keep your license, you have to have 90 hours of what we call continuing education. Last year, different businesses came in and said, ‘hey, we need local students to know what jobs are available in the local community,’” Wolkins said. “So we actually put in a requirement that of those 90 days, 15 of them had to be concerning your local economic development.”

He said by the time the teachers union put it out there, the union was saying the state legislature was requiring 15 “additional unpaid” hours. “Wasn’t the case at all. That’s what they got out. Teachers were very, very mad about it.” So this year, Wolkins said a bill was filed that states teachers “may” use 15 of those 90 hours to be concerning local economic development. He said he thinks it’s something that ought to happen.

Teacher Pay
On teacher pay, Wolkins offered some statistics.

“The general thing is that teachers are totally underpaid. And some of them are, absolutely no question about it,” Wolkins said. “When we took over the state funding for schools, we turned it down to the locals to take care of teacher salaries. That’s who decides it. We didn’t give enough direction and so forth, so for four to five years teachers didn’t get a salary increase. And that was bad.”

In the last few budgets, Wolkins said the state legislature tried to correct that. This year, they took $763 million and put that into education and put $150 million toward paying down pensions. “So each school is going to get between $300,000 to $400,000 additional,” Wolkins said. “Last year, 98% of teachers got a salary increase. Only 2% didn’t.” He said the average teacher raise was $1,299. “That’s not a bad raise,” Wolkins said. He then said Red for Ed Day was Nov. 19, but he only got to talk to teachers from Whitko Schools.

“If you get a chance, Google Red for Ed. See who they are, how they were started, so forth. Teachers are being used by that group. It was started by the Democrat Socialists of America. They have two agendas – get rid of Trump, get rid of Betsy DeVos at the Department of Education. Teachers were so frustrated, they bought into it. They were used,” Wolkins said, acknowledging teachers do have legitimate concerns that the state legislature is trying to address.

Mishler said the main bill he worked on this year was House Bill 1007. It was fast-tracked, with the House hearing it the very first day of session. It was passed out of Senate by the third week. “What that was, was we had some higher (education) projects in the budget that we passed. The bill allowed the administration to cash-pay those projects instead of bond them: $290 million in higher-ed projects, which saves us and taxpayers $135 million in interest alone over time. So I thought that was a very financially responsible way to utilize the excess money,” Mishler said.

He said what really drew attention was what was not in the bill.

“So when you read the headlines, it’s like ‘Republicans Kill Teacher Pay.’ So let me just explain what the teacher pay was, the proposal by the Democrats on the teacher pay,” Mishler said. “So we have what we call the Pre-96 Teacher Retirement Fund. It’s currently $14 billion in the hole. It was $17 billion when I first started, but we’ve been paying it down. They say it will be fully funded by 2035.”

He said it costs the state about $900 million a year out of the general fund to pay for the liabilities out of the Pre-96 fund. Mishler said the Democrat proposal was to divert $100 million a year from the Pre-96 retirement fund and give it to teacher pay, “which would extend it out to 2044 and would cost the taxpayers $2 billion extra.” But he said no one explains that, and that’s the reason the GOP didn’t want to do it, was because it takes away from the retirement fund.

Mishler also talked about how teachers have told him Red for Ed Day wasn’t about teacher pay but all the mandates put on teachers “every single year.” The two main ones were the “pause on the ILEARN scores” and the “decoupling of the teacher evaluations from the scores,” he said. “So the two biggest things teachers asked for, we actually did.”

Wolkins  said every year on his legislative survey, he asks his constituents if school funding is too little, right amount or too much. For the first time ever this year, he said 51% said it wasn’t enough. Of course, respondents want more money to go toward education but don’t want taxes raised to do it, he pointed out.

School Water Testing
A bill that Wolkins has been involved in has to do with lead testing in water in schools. “All of you know what happened in Flint, Michigan, a few years ago,” he said. In 2011, the state of Michigan took over Flint’s finances after an audit projected a $25 million deficit, according to a CNN article. In order to reduce the water fund shortfall, the city announced that a new pipeline would be built to deliver water from Lake Huron to Flint. In 2014, while the pipeline was under construction, the city turned to the Flint River as a water source. Soon after the switch, residents reported changes to the water’s color, smell and taste. Tests in 2015 by the Environmental Protection Agency and Virginia Tech indicated dangerous levels of lead in the water at residents’ homes.

A representative from Gary, Ind. – Carolyn B. Jackson – came to Wolkins last year with a water-testing bill but he didn’t give the bill a hearing. Instead, he told her to go do her homework and then he’d give it a hearing, so Jackson did. The bill Jackson filed not only was for Gary, but all schools, child care centers and babysitters statewide to have to have their water tested. Wolkins said he wasn’t about to let that happen, so they confined it to just Lake County that all schools would have to test for lead in their water.

“They do have a problem up there,” Wolkins said, noting there are environmental issues in Lake County. “Folks from Indianapolis came to me and said, ‘Why are you doing it just for Gary? Are our kids not as important as those are?’” So Wolkins allowed Jackson to make the water testing statewide, and it passed out of the House. “It requires every school in the state of Indiana to have water testing by 2023,” Wolkins said. He said it might have ran into a problem fiscally at the State Senate.

“There’s $750,000 of federal money to do this, and if you have every school doing it, you’re not going to get it done for $750,000. The budget guys will wear in on that one before it’s all over,” Wolkins said. In the schools where water has been tested, he said what they’re finding is the lead isn’t coming from the water from the water companies but from the water fountains and fixtures in the schools.

“They claim it’s only a $550 remediation to fix those in schools, so we’ll see what happens with that one,” Wolkins said of Jackson’s bill.