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Republican primary foes zero in on education as hot-button issue


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Education was a prominent issue during the recently completed Indiana General Assembly session, as lawmakers made key decisions about educational standards and an early education program.

It should be an important topic again next year when state lawmakers craft a two-year budget.

Columbus County Councilman Ryan Lauer is challenging incumbent state Rep. Milo Smith to have a voice in that debate, with the winner of the May 6 primary earning the right to run in the fall general election and potentially represent state House District 59, which includes all but eastern/northeastern Bartholomew County.

This is the first time Smith has faced a primary opponent in five campaigns for the job.

In this contest, education is expected to be a key campaign issue.

Lawmakers voted in the recently completed Indiana General Assembly session to scrap the state’s use of Common Core educational standards, opting to devise its own measures. Smith voted in favor of this bill. A preliminary draft of the new standards was unveiled Tuesday.

On a second education measure, Gov. Mike Pence had to work hard to get a scaled-down version of a prekindergarten pilot program through the General Assembly. It will provide about 1,500 vouchers statewide — to be distributed among five pilot counties — for children to attend a qualified half- or full-day early education program. Smith also voted “yes” to this bill.

Locally, education is expected to be a front-burner issue this year. Columbus voters will decide the fate of a prekindergarten initiative in a November ballot question.

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. will ask voters to support a property tax increase of 5 cents per $100 assessed valuation to fund prekindergarten for the school district’s neediest students for the next seven years. It would cost the owner of a home assessed at $150,000 about $32 more in annual property taxes. It will be the second time the district has sought early education funding through a tax increase in the past two years. It lost by about 1,700 votes in November 2012.

If approved, the local referendum would generate $1.8 million annually to pay prekindergarten fees for an estimated 450 students whose families can’t afford early education through tuition-based public schools or private preschools.

Lauer said Indiana has serious educational problems.

“Our academic standards are currently in jeopardy. My opponent sat on the House Education Committee when Common Core was adopted,” Lauer said. “The federal government has failed us so many times, why would education be any different?”

Lauer thinks the state needs to change its focus to produce better results.

“We need to allow more flexibility and innovation for teachers to teach, fully fund kindergarten and implement exceptionally high standards,” Lauer said.

Smith said better educational results can be achieved by adopting an approach small businesses have used.

“A few years ago, I had the honor of being a delegate to the White House Conference on Small Business, which allowed small businesses to be more successful by listening to thousands of small business owners all over the United States. It is time for the state of Indiana to conduct an ‘Indiana Conference on Education’ by inviting teachers, administrators and parents to make recommendations to our elected officials,” Smith said.

One issue that educators, lawmakers and business leaders have been addressing together is how to narrow the gap between the skills needed today in the workplace and the training students are getting. Companies, and manufacturers in particular, have been seeking employees with advanced skills that require additional or different types of training.

Smith advocates continued understanding of needs and support of programs in place.

“We must continue our collaboration with local employers to identify their needs. Then, we should continue to support innovative initiatives funded in the current state budget, such as workforce development programs (Skills Enhancement Fund), the Indiana Career Council, Indiana Works Councils, the Work Indiana program and the Indiana Biosciences Research Institute,” Smith said.

Lauer also thinks collaboration plays a role in closing the gap.

“Companies wanting to move here look carefully at the quality of our schools and the skills of our workforce. As technology and efficiency improves, our workforce must be able to adapt,” Lauer said. “We should empower our local universities, nonprofits, and businesses to collaborate on continuing education for all citizens, re-training and improving graduation rates.”

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