Will 2014 be another big year for new education laws? That’s hard to say.
As lawmakers began to pitch ideas today for the 2014 legislative session, opinions diverged on how much could be accomplished on hot education issues like the Common Core, preschool funding and discord on the Indiana State Board of Education.
Senate Education Committee chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, doesn’t think education will be a big focus this time.
“I don’t have any priorities for education for session 2014,” he said. “I think we passed some pretty significant bills the past three years and I think it’s time to take a rest.”
But across the statehouse, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said improving early childhood education and addressing the “skills gap” that he said leaves high school graduates ill-prepared for work and college, were two of his four top priorities for 2014.
He also hinted the legislature could wade into a dispute among state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, Gov. Mike Pence and the Indiana State Board of Education over who directs education policymaking.
“Our state’s constitution clearly gives that task to the elected legislative bodies in this chamber and the senate,” Bosma said.
The legislature officially began the new session Tuesday with its annual “organization day,” a mostly ceremonial event. Lawmakers begin their work in earnest when they next meet in early January.
Because 2014 is not a budget year — the two-year state budget is created in odd-numbered years — lawmakers said it is likely to have less action overall than 2013. But even without the ability to approve new spending initiatives it is possible the legislature could change direction, or move further ahead, on some education priorities.
Since 2011, education has been one of the hottest legislative issues. Many of the major changes over three years have come as lawmakers expanded charter school sponsoring, created and then expanded a private school voucher program, limited teacher union bargaining, overhauled teacher evaluation, ordered a reexamination of K-12 academic standards and changed A to F grading for schools.
Kruse said that’s enough, that he wants to focus on “minor issues” and avoid “heavy lifting.”
But Bosma said there was particular interest in exploring ways to expand preschool in the state. He and Kruse also elaborated how the saw lawmakers potentially addressing Common Core standards and the battle for control of the Indiana State Board of Education.
Here’s a look at what Bosma and Kruse had to say about three big issues for the legislature going into the session:
Several key Republican leaders, and outside supporters such as the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, pushed hard in 2013 for the state to launch a small preschool pilot program that would have been a first.
Indiana is one of only 11 states that provides no state funding for preschool. The modest proposal called for $7 million per year over two years to pay for preschool for 1,000 low income children in five counties and study their success.
Bosma said he expected a similar proposal in 2014, this time with strong support from Gov. Mike Pence, who has said several times over the past few months that he is interested in exploring the issue.
“It’s particularly interesting to the governor,” he said. “We may be close to being on the same page.”
The bill containing the pilot program got off to a strong start, passing the house by a 93-6 vote last February. But when the bill emerged from the Senate Education Committee it had been stripped of all direct state funding for the pilot. The proposal ultimately was dropped in favor of a smaller program with a different design. At the time, Kruse said Republican committee members were wary about adding new funding for preschool and felt it was a lower priority than other education initiatives.
But Bosma said the pilot program could help prove the value of preschool to doubters among his colleagues.
“People throw roadblocks up here,” he said. “One of them is ‘it doesn’t help these kids and any improvement is gone after the third year.’ My thought was to generate data, show it to our folks and say this is making a difference in these kids’ lives.”
Even in a non-budget year in 2014, Bosma said he still thought there was a way to revisit the establishing the pilot.
“There’s a means to do it,” he said. “You can make it effective outside the budget cycle.”
Bosma also suggested that the legislature could also step into the raging battle among Ritz, Pence and the state board. At the center of the tensions between Ritz and Pence is the Center for Education and Career Innovation (CECI), a center that Pence created after he was given funding by the legislature last year.
Pence created CECI to coordinate among the state board, the Education Roundtable and other education agencies in the state, using money that was redirected in part from the budget of the Ritz-run Indiana Department of Education in last year’s budget bill. Those dollars have helped fund a separate staff for the state board. Ritz chairs the board and leads the education department. Since the creation of CECI, Ritz and other board members have battled over who can place items on the board’s agenda, call for reports and decide whether motions should be heard.
The tension exploded last week when Ritz abruptly ended a state board meeting and walked out rather than allow a vote on board member Brad Oliver’s resolution. Ritz said the resolution would have given CECI control over standards setting, a move she described as illegal.
“My first choice is, by agreement, we have everybody come together and say, ‘this is how we’re going to govern,’ ” Bosma said. “If we’re not going to be able to do that it is the legislature’s responsibility to set down those defining lines.”
For his part, Kruse was reluctant to see the legislature get involved in the state board controversy.
“I don’t think we should do anything,” he said. “I think we should let them work it out. They should man up, solve their differences and move forward.”
Ritz declined to comment.
In the 2013 session, House Republicans resisted a push from the Senate to stop implementation of Common Core standards, academic guidelines that Indiana and 44 other states have agreed to follow. The state board made the Common Core Indiana’s official standards in 2010 without fanfare or controversy and the state has been phasing them in starting with low elementary grades. But opposition to the Common Core has built in the legislature over the past two years.
In a compromise last spring, Common Core was implemented along with Indiana’s old standards up through second grade while lawmakers ordered a yearlong reconsideration as to whether the state should stick with Common Core, return to its old standards or create new standards. Public hearings will be held next spring with a state board vote on what standards Indiana will follow must come by July.
Indiana critics of Common Core say the standards are less rigorous in some areas than the state’s well-regarded former standards. Others say adopting Common Core abdicates too much control over education to the U.S. Department of Education, which supports the new standards but didn’t have a formal role in creating them. Another criticism is that Common Core could lead to expanded standardized testing.
But supporters say the standards are better than what Indiana had before, that the state has flexibility under Common Core to keep elements of its prior standards if it wishes and that the state must adopt them to remain competitive, as college entrance exams will soon be aligned to the new standards.
Bosma advocated for Common Core standards with House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, last spring. But he told reporters Monday that the state needed to “move on” from the question of whether it should or should not adopt the Common Core.
Kruse, a former Common Core supporter who turned against the standards earlier this year, echoed that sentiment Tuesday, saying the process the legislature set in 2013 should play out, but he expected the state would be informed by the Common Core but create its own standards in the end.
“I think we want to have Indiana be independent and be in charge of our own education standards and even our own education tests,” he said.
NOTE: This post was updated to clarify that the preschool pilot program proposed in 2013 was implemented with a different design.