Looking ahead

Funding for Indiana schools, preschool and teachers have seen major changes. Lawmakers are now taking a second look.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
House Speaker Brian Bosma presents legislative priorities for Indiana House Republicans at the beginning of the session. Bosma is the author of the bill to appoint the next state superintendent, one of this year's priorities.

In the first week of the 2017 legislative session, three education issues — school funding, preschool and teacher pay —  are already getting attention from both sides of the aisle.

Bills will continue to be released over the next week, when testing and other education issues are expected to make an appearance.

School funding

House Republicans are proposing fundamental changes in how money is distributed to school districts.

Instead of funneling all money to school and district general funds, which restrict how the money is spent, it would also be distributed to other parts of their budgets. House Speaker Brian Bosma says this proposal is designed to give schools more decision making power in how they use state money.

The House will release a budget draft in the next month or so, which will offer more details about how this plan would work, and Gov.-Elect Eric Holcomb is expected to present his budget next week.

Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said he hopes traditional public schools’ funding isn’t compromised by growing enrollment in private and charter schools.

“There are communities throughout Indiana that are seeing their school systems asphyxiated by recent changes to state funding,” Pelath said. “I’d like to hear something about the 95 percent of school-age children that are in your traditional public schools.”

Preschool

Advocates had hoped 2017 would be a year of major expansion for the state’s $10 million preschool program, but it’s becoming clear that funding will likely fall short of their expectations.

The program has provided preschool support to about 1,600 kids in five counties, but demand has far exceeded supply.

Bosma said Wednesday that significant growth probably wouldn’t be possible in a year when state revenue is forecasted to be about $300 million short of earlier projections. He has suggested expanding preschool to perhaps 10 counties for $20 million.

For the most part, Indiana Republicans agree on growing the program conservatively. On Thursday, Holcomb announced his proposal to also double the current preschool funding amount to $20 million, but he suggested keeping it within the original five counties.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane said he and his caucus have been disappointed in the modest proposals they’ve heard from Republicans.

“I can assure you there are communities around the state that have been working on this, investing in this, and know for their individual communities that this is a good thing,” Lanane said. “Far more than just 10 communities throughout the state.”

Teaching

After Republicans backed major changes to teacher pay in 2011 and 2013, legislative leaders are now saying they might need to reconsider some of them.

Just one week in, lawmakers have already proposed a number of bills dealing with teacher pay. The subject that has garnered considerable attention since news of teacher shortages sprung up in 2015.

Thursday, Bosma even acknowledged that a Republican-led effort passed in 2013 to give high-performing teachers extra pay might have been a mistake given anger over how the bonuses were meted out last month.

“I think we’re going to have to take a hard look at that,” Bosma said. “In fact, it’s received so much criticism and allegations that we disrespected teachers with this, that maybe it wasn’t such a great idea. The concept was to reward teachers that are well-rated, and some are upset that there was a disparity in this. That wasn’t our intention.”

WFYI Public Media reported that wealthy school districts received the majority of the $40 million bonus dollars. Carmel teachers received $2,422 per teacher, while those in Wayne Township saw $42 per teacher. The bonuses are based on schools’ ISTEP passing rates and graduation rates, which tend to be higher in wealthier districts. That said, most teachers across the state continued to be rated “effective” or “highly effective,” in both high- and low-performing districts.

The Indiana State Teachers Association, the largest teachers union in the state, also supports increasing teacher pay. Indiana average teacher salaries rank in the bottom half of states.

ISTA also wants lawmakers to reinstate extra pay for teachers who obtain advanced degrees and address collective bargaining rights, which have been curtailed in Indiana since 2011.

“Our future is directly linked to teacher recruitment and retention,” said ISTA President Teresa Meredith. “We need the best educators to teach our kids and bolster our schools.”

legislative look-back

Holcomb pulls off a near-perfect education record in his first session as Indiana governor, and with far less drama than in years past

PHOTO: AP Photo/Darron Cummings, Pool
Gov. Eric Holcomb, right, responds to a question during a debate for Indiana Governor.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb managed a rare feat in his first year on the job — to check nearly every box on his education agenda for 2017.

At the beginning of the year, Holcomb set four specific goals for K-12 education: making the state superintendent appointed by 2021; doubling state funding for preschool; adding funding  for school internet access; and better coordinating science, technology, engineering and math initiatives across the state.

It wasn’t always clear whether those proposals would pass. But Holcomb was ultimately able to get what he wanted with fairly little drama — unlike his predecessor, Vice President Mike Pence.

“The legislature over-delivered,” Holcomb said Tuesday. “Now it’s time for us to take these tools and new resources and put them to work.”

Holcomb’s success likely hinged both on his collaborative approach to working with lawmakers — in contrast to the more ideological and aggressive approaches, respectively, of former Gov. Pence and his predecessor, Gov. Mitch Daniels — and the less controversial makeup of his education priorities.

Pence failed to make much progress when he tried to break new ground in some way — like with plans to re-imagine teachers’ roles in schools — or when he faced vehement opposition, like his attempts to further reduce union negotiating power. Holcomb’s priorities, for the most part, were harder to argue with: a need for more preschool for poor children, better school internet access or more opportunities to prepare kids for the workforce and science- and math-related fields.

Although Pence was ultimately able to push through many of his education priorities, such as establishing a preschool program, driving up career and technical education funding, and increasing support for charter schools and vouchers, his efforts brought more opposition from lawmakers, even those in his own party.

Take preschool.

When Pence put out the call for a state-funded pilot program after years of debate, senators were extremely skeptical. In the waning days of the 2014 session, they stripped any meaningful investment from the bill, turning it instead into a suggestion to study the issue over the summer. At the last minute, after Pence himself testified before lawmakers, the funding was restored, and the program became a reality.

This year, the same last-ditch attempts to kill the proposal were absent. After the Senate proposed only increasing preschool spending by $4 million, lawmakers came back with a $20 million-per-year plan in line with Holcomb’s initial ask.

Holcomb also had the benefit of not having to go head-to-head with the state schools chief.

Pence’s frequent battles with then-state Superintendent Glenda Ritz were a notable part of his administration. Current Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, on the other hand, was fairly aligned with Holcomb’s goals from the beginning — even signing on to support his call to make her position appointed, rather than elected, in the future.

That’s the one area in his education policy agenda where Holcomb didn’t eke out a full win — but it was arguably also the most controversial part of his agenda, with many educators and some lawmakers asserting that the move takes away an independent education voice at the Statehouse. The proposal has been debated in some way for more than 30 years.

Holcomb originally supported a 2021 start date for the appointment, which would allow him to make the appointment if elected to a second term. Instead, this year’s legislation would have it begin in 2025, meaning McCormick could seek a second term and Holcomb wouldn’t be the executive empowered to make the first secretary of education pick.

Holcomb said Tuesday that he has no desire to revisit that legislation in order to change the effective date.

He reiterated his goal of collaboration Tuesday when addressing reporters during a press conference, pointing to his relationship with McCormick.

“We’ll continue to meet and collaborate and work on issues that we both know are of the utmost importance,” Holcomb said. “And we’ll get there together. I look forward to it.”

As far as bills that weren’t on his agenda, Holcomb today said he plans to sign into law Senate Bill 567, which would appoint emergency financial managers in the Gary and Muncie school districts. He also indicated support for House Bill 1003, which would replace the state’s ISTEP test with a new program to be called “ILEARN” in 2019.

You can find other education bills that moved ahead this session here in our legislative wrap-up.

social studies

Tennessee’s long journey to new social studies standards nears its finish line

Tennessee is one step closer to having new social studies standards after almost 1½ years of unprecedented public scrutiny and feedback.

The State Board of Education voted unanimously on Friday to move ahead with a revision that was begun partly out of concern over how Islam is being taught in seventh-grade world history.

Now receiving attention is the question of whether too much Tennessee history is being removed from standards that most everyone agrees were over-laden with material.

The proposed draft, which will undergo a final vote in July, reduces the number of standards overall by 14 percent — but at the expense of some Tennessee history such as the Chickamauga Indians, “Roots” author Alex Haley, and the New Madrid earthquakes.

Members of the Standards Recommendation Committee have presented the proposal as striking the right balance.

“There’s an infinite number of people and facts that are significant, and we can’t include them all,” said Todd Wigginton, who led the teacher review and is director of instruction for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

But Bill Carey, one of the panel’s nine members, offered a dissenting opinion to the section for grades 1-5.

“In these standards, the Plateau of Tibet is mentioned twice but the Cumberland Plateau is never mentioned,” said Carey, who is executive director of the nonprofit Tennessee History for Kids. “… I think a case can be made that there’s too much of Tennessee missing.”

Wigginton said the idea behind the final draft is that teachers should have more flexibility, and focus more on important concepts.

He said Tennessee’s new standards asked students to consider, for example, the significance of civil disobedience in the civil rights movement, rather than memorize a list of people and dates.

The state spearheaded a laborious review for social studies beginning in January 2016 after critics charged that seventh-grade standards addressing the Five Pillars of Islam amounted to “proselytizing.” Members of the recommendation committee say all religions would be taught in a uniform way under the new standards.

The draft reflects tens of thousands comments from hundreds of Tennessee residents over the course of two public reviews, as well as nearly 100 hours of meetings by the committee. That panel, along with a team of educators who reviewed public feedback last summer, created standards that they say allows teachers flexibility and the freedom to go in-depth, while also covering key topics.

Unlike many other states, Tennessee hasn’t cordoned off Tennessee history to specific units for nearly two decades, choosing instead to “embed” state-specific facts across all grades. Carey said he’s made a career out of helping teachers incorporate Tennessee material into their history classes. He noted that several state historical associations and museums have raised concerns too about the final draft.

“In my opinion, for embedding to work, Tennessee topics have to be clearly spelled out in the standards,” said Carey, who submitted a minority report to share his concerns. “If they’re not, teachers won’t get the message that they have to cover Tennessee history.”

Jason Roach, a former social studies teacher and now principal of Mooresburg Elementary School in Hawkins County, said those terms could be incorporated into curriculum, even if they aren’t explicitly spelled out in the standards.

Standards lay out what students should know at each grade level, while curriculum includes the lessons and activities that students study and do throughout the school year.

“Tennessee history needs to be taught in Tennessee schools. I believe that,” Roach said. But, he continued, teachers should decide how to build curriculum on a local level, rather than the state over-prescribing what should be covered through the standards.

During a discussion Thursday about the final draft, board members offered praise about both the process and the results.

“You did an incredible job,” said Lillian Hartgrove, who represents part of Middle Tennessee. “I know it’s not exactly what everyone wanted … but what you have accomplished is truly incredible.”

Tennessee’s academic standards in all four core subject areas have been overhauled over the last three years, and social studies standards are the only ones still in the works.

If approved, the new Tennessee Academic Standards for Social Studies will reach the state’s classrooms in the 2019-2020 school year.