Early Education

At legislative kickoff, lawmakers ponder preschool, state board and Common Core

LegisOrgDayHouse
On Organization Day, Indiana legislative leaders annually gather for a mostly ceremonial start to the upcoming legislative session.

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:

Preschool

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.

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PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat
House Speaker Brian Bosma

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.”

State board

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.

Common Core

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.

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”