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COLUMN: A freshman legislator’s experience

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By SUE ELLSPERMANN, District 74 State Representative

Editor’s Note: State Rep. Sue Ellspermann looks back at her first legislative session. Part 1 of her column appeared in Thursday’s edition.

Last week I began to outline the many goals we worked toward and accomplish in the 2011 legislative session. It was a busy and fruitful four months for the legislature and for all Hoosiers in the end. The following is the end of my discussion on our plans to strengthen Indiana through expanding education opportunities and standing up to Washington, D.C.

Educational Opportunities

Maintaining funding for education was paramount. However, beyond that, we know that many Hoosier children are failing. We passed legislation that allowed the expansion of public charter schools while increasing their accountability to the same levels of existing public schools. Seventy percent of charter-school students are either low-income or minority.

Many live in the inner city. Thousands more are on waiting lists to attend charter schools. Though I don’t expect charters to spring up in our rural schools, it is an important option needed for Hoosier children and one that doesn’t affect our rural schools as the funding follows the child.

We passed bold legislation allowing low- and modest-income families to use school scholarships, commonly called vouchers, to private schools. To qualify, private and parochial schools must follow similar standards to Indiana public schools such as testing.

They must use the same admission standards for scholarship students as they do with their current student body. In the first year, only 7,500 scholarships will be awarded. In the second year, this number increases to 15,000. To qualify, the child must have spent the last year in public school, not including kindergarten, and the family must qualify for free or reduced-price lunch to receive a 90-percent scholarship or up 150 percent of free or reduced-price lunch income level to receive a 50-percent scholarship. Again, this is likely to have a minimal impact to our rural schools, where private-education opportunities are limited.

Financially, the money will follow the child, the school scholarships will save the state money as many of our inner-city schools are costing $10,000 per child or more to educate, and these savings will be recalculated into the K-12 education funding formula.

I know many have concerns with vouchers, particularly K-12 educators. I did, too. However, I believe we must be willing to conduct a bold “pilot” like this to see if we can impact graduation and educational outcomes of Hoosier children. Just graduating from high school equates to an additional $1 million in earnings over a lifetime. In virtually all states with voucher programs, graduation rates have improved.

Other education bills passed included teacher merit-based pay and focusing contracts on salary and benefits. This ensures our best performing, most committed teachers will be rewarded accordingly while providing school leaders with greater flexibility in how they manage and staff their schools.

Standing up to Washington, D.C.

Indiana may not be able to overturn Roe v Wade, however we passed one of the nation’s strongest pro-life bills. HB 1210, which ensures informed consent, sets viability of the fetus at 20 weeks, increases accountability of doctors performing abortions and ensures that no state funding goes to organizations which also fund abortions.

Be assured that Indiana has sufficient women’s reproductive-health clinics to meet the needs of women even if Planned Parenthood would choose to no longer operate here. And, recognize that Indiana would fund them if they cease performing abortions in our state. It is really their choice. Hoosiers have spoken loudly on this issue. We value life. We choose to protect our unborn. Your legislature listened.

Immigration was a further issue important to Hoosiers. Though the federal government clearly “owns” this problem, they have been falling far short of their responsibility of securing our borders and ensuring an adequate immigration process. Indiana passed legislation which increases requirements on businesses to use e-Verify if they contract with the state. It also increases penalties for human trafficking. Further, a study committee is formed to develop a memorandum of understanding with U.S. Homeland Security in the enforcement of immigration laws.

Responsible Legislators

In closing, it was a tumultuous year with the five-week walkout. The Senate did insert anti-bolting legislation back into the budget bill, ensuring that in the future, neither party will “take their toys and go home” rather than stay and do the work Hoosiers have elected us to do. I do have one grave disappointment that there was not stronger bi-partisanship.

The walkout only exacerbated it. Be assured that I see my job as your legislator to work across the aisle and to develop solutions that can be supported by Democrats, Republicans and Independents.

Thank you for your continued feedback and support this session. Please feel free to contact me with your questions, ideas and concerns throughout the year and I will be happy to discuss them with you. Enjoy the beautiful weather and I’ll be sure to keep you updated on events this summer.

Ellspermann represents portions of Perry County in the Indiana House of Representatives.