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.

Screen Shot 2013-11-19 at 5.12.46 PM
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.

STEM in Colorado

Colorado lawmakers are stepping in to help prepare students for the state’s booming tech sector

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Northglenn High School who are studying biomedical science work on an assignment. The class is part of the school's STEM offerings.

More Colorado students could be building smartphone apps by the end of next school year.

In an effort to prepare students for the state’s booming technology job market, lawmakers are considering three bills that would beef up access to computer science classes and provide students with new credentials after they leave high school.

A Chalkbeat analysis last year found that only about two out of every seven students in Colorado have access to courses in STEM — short for science, technology, engineering and math.

The bipartisan bills could change that, increasing access to computer science courses for the state’s black, Latino and rural students, and — for the first time — begin to define what a quality STEM program is.

The first bill scheduled to be debated by the House Education Committee on Monday would require schools to include technology in lessons alongside traditional subjects, such as English and civics.

It would also require the education department to create lessons to help educators teach computer science as a standalone course, and set up a $500,000 grant program to help train them.

“Kids need to be up to speed on these things in order to function in the current marketplace,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, along with Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat. “The more they’re attuned to the technology of the times — all the better. It will help them in college and getting their job and careers.”

The technology sector is the fastest growing in Colorado. There are an estimated 13,517 open computing jobs in the state, according to Colorado Succeeds, an education reform advocacy group that represents the state’s business community.

Some states have already made the shift to include technology in their learning standards. In Arkansas, which made the change in 2015, officials say the new standards have already started to break down stereotypes about who can do computer science.

“What we’re trying to do is to make computer science a normal part of their academic lives,” said Anthony Owen, the state director for computer science education in Arkansas. “When we make it normal for everyone, it’s abnormal for no one.”

A second bill under consideration in Colorado would make mostly technical changes to the state’s new P-Tech schools, a model that mirrors a New York City school that partners with IBM to give students work experience and a path to an associate’s degree while in high school.

The model allows students to stay in high school for up to six years — which has caused schools that house P-Tech programs to worry about their graduation rates.

House Bill 1194 would change the way the state calculates graduation rates to avoid penalizing schools that have P-Tech students enrolled for an extra two years.

The third bill, House Bill 1201, would create a special kind of diploma that shows colleges and employers that its holder is proficient in STEM subjects. To get the diploma, students would have to take a variety of STEM classes, earn high marks on standardized math exams, and demonstrate their science skills through a special project they complete their senior year.

“I want to make sure, across Colorado, that we have clear expectations and that they’re equitable expectations,” said Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “All of our schools are doing a good job preparing our kids, but I want to be specific in terms of what our colleges and workforce is seeking in our graduates.”

The bill, however, stops short of defining what coursework students must complete. Local schools will decide that. That was important to Jess Buller, the principal of West Grand’s K-8 school who helped write the bill. He noted that different schools and districts offer different STEM courses.

“We want that STEM endorsement to be that sign of distinction, that a student completed a program and does not need the remedial work that might be required for other students,” Buller said. “The bill is specific enough, but flexible enough.”

Morgan Kempf, the STEM science specialist for Pueblo City Schools, said she is excited to offer such a credential.

In the absence of a special diploma, Pueblo Central High School, the city’s STEM school, has sought outside accreditation to give weight to its STEM courses. The school has also started handing out school letters, usually a tradition reserved for varsity athletes, to exceptional STEM students.

“It’s an extra stamp of approval that recognizes and appreciates what they’re doing and at the level of rigor they’re doing it at,” Kempf said. “That stamp of approval lets students and potential employers know they’re meeting expectations.”

power players

Who’s who in Indiana education: House Speaker Brian Bosma

PHOTO: Sarah Glen

Find more entries on education power players as they publish here.

Vitals: Republican representing District 88, covering parts of Marion, Hancock and Hamilton counties. So far, has served 31 years in the legislature, 9 of those as Speaker of the House. Bosma is a lawyer at the firm Kroger, Gardis & Regas.

Why he’s a power player: Bosma was House Speaker in 2011, when the state passed its large education reform package, creating the first voucher program for students from low-income families. Along with Rep. Bob Behning, Bosma helped develop the state’s voucher program bill as well as the bill that expanded charter school efforts that year. As a party and chamber leader, he plays a major role in setting House Republicans’ legislative agendas.

On toeing the party line: With the debate over state-funded preschool front and center during this year’s session, Bosma has expressed far more enthusiasm than his fellow Republicans for expanding the state’s program. Indeed, Bosma has long been a supporter of state-sponsored preschool. Currently, low-income families in five counties can apply for vouchers to use at high-quality preschool providers. Bosma has said he’d like to see that number triple, if not more.

Recent action: In 2016, Bosma ushered through one of the few teacher-focused bills that became law in the wake of news that some districts in the state were struggling to hire teachers. The bill created a state scholarship fund for prospective teachers, and began awarding money to students this year.

A perhaps little-known fact: In the late 1980s, Bosma worked at the Indiana Department of Education as the legislative adviser to H. Dean Evans, the state superintendent at that time. Then, as with this year’s House Bill 1005, lawmakers advocated to make the state superintendent an appointed position, a bill Bosma is carrying this year.

Who supports him: In past elections, Bosma has received campaign contributions from Education Networks of America, a private education technology company; Hoosiers for Quality Education, an advocacy group that supports school choice, charter schools and vouchers; Stand for Children, a national organization that supports education reform and helps parents to organize; K12, one of the largest online school providers in the country.

Conversely, given his support for choice-based reform, the Indiana Coalition for Public Education gave Bosma an “F” in its 2016 legislative report card highlighting who it thinks has been supportive of public schools.

Legislative highlights via Chalkbeat:

Bills in past years: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017

Also check out our list of bills to watch this year.