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John Krull commentary: Behning, education and evasion

One of the most disheartening things about the education war in Indiana is that so little of the fighting is about learning.

You know, the thing education is supposed to be about.

Most of the jousting, in fact, now is about either control or finding someone else to blame. And most of the finger-pointing comes from the crowd that’s called the shots in Indiana schools for at least 15 years and, once upon a time, used the word “accountability” almost as if it were a form of punctuation, something that could be spread as promiscuously through conversation and writing as the comma, the period or the apostrophe.

Now, the one-time accountability acolytes do their best to pretend the word and the concept don’t even exist because holding people responsible for foolish decisions and actions would subject them to some harsh judgments.

Let’s look at Exhibit A, Indiana Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis.

Behning’s has been one of the loudest voices in the Indiana education debate for years. Early on, he and his comrades argued that students who did not perform well on standardized tests and other means of measuring achievement were victims of an educational system and philosophy that either had failed or exploited them.

The remedy to this malady was a series of “reforms”—charter schools, vouchers, etc.—that would introduce market forces into public education. Behning and his fellow travelers contended that improved student achievement would follow these alterations as inevitably as day follows night.

As it turned out, that didn’t happen.

The best that Behning and his crew of true believers could argue was that Indiana’s schools hadn’t lost ground quite as fast as those in some other states where the self-proclaimed education reformers gained control of classrooms.

Rather than practice what they preached about accountability, Behning and his crew instead decided to shift the terms of the discussion. Education reform really wasn’t about improving student performance and opportunities, they said. Instead, it was about “empowering parents” and making them feel better about their children’s schooling.

In other words, we Hoosiers have been footing the bill for the most expansive and expensive school voucher system in the country for therapeutic reasons.

That argument may have proved persuasive to the already converted.

But to others who didn’t drink the Kool-Aid?

Not so much.

Increasingly, Hoosiers came to realize that they were being asked to pay for two or even three systems of public education, along with all the attendant possibilities for graft and rank profiteering such a confused setup provided.

Those Hoosiers also began to hear from teachers who were tired of being treated as either scapegoats or punching bags by the crowd that claimed to revere education and teachers. When a teacher shortage began to manifest itself, those same Hoosiers began to ask what Behning and crew had produced after all these years of machinations and massive amounts of money spent.

Behning’s response was a classic sidestep.

This session, he introduced an omnibus education bill that, among other things, would allow schools to hire “adjunct” teachers.

While presenting the bill to the Senate Education Committee, Behning noted that only 30 out of 1,000 Black students in the Indianapolis Public Schools passed both sections of the statewide assessment, ILEARN.

“I would suggest that part of the problem is—and there’s a number of things—poverty impacts that for sure, having a respect for learning, all of—there’s a lot of things that come into play,” Behning said.

Critics pounced on Behning’s statement. They said it was at the very least borderline racist.

Behning reacted by quickly issuing a statement distancing himself from the racial implications of his comments.

But he adhered to his main point.

That was that the people he and his colleagues once zestfully called “victims” of a failed system now are the ones who are responsible for their own troubles.

Certainly, the problem couldn’t be the folks who have been driving education policy in Indiana for the past 15 years.

You know, Bob Behning and his team.

And the word “accountability?”

Best to pretend it never even existed.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.