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 on Wednesday.

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.”

Rally

This Tennessee teacher spoke at a rally in support of trans students. Here’s what he wants lawmakers to know.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
More than 100 protestors attended a rally in support of the state's transgender students at the state Capitol.

Months after he began teaching at Tennessee’s second-largest high school, Westlee Walker started a student group for LGBTQ students and their allies in response to a string of three student suicides.

“Students were coming to me, and they needed a safe space (to talk),” said Walker, in his second year of teaching at Nashville’s McGavock High School. “It goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. … If a student doesn’t feel safe, they will not be able to learn.”

Walker joined more than 100 other Tennesseans Friday at a rally at the state Capitol in support of the state’s trans students. The Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition, with students from across the state, organized the rally over a decision by President Trump’s administration to pull protections that allowed transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice.

Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet and Rep. Mark Pody of Lebanon have filed a bill that would limit Tennessee transgender students to using the bathroom that corresponds with the gender on their birth certificate. Asked Monday about their proposal, Beavers declined to comment, and Pody did not immediately respond. However, some other state leaders have said such a bill is unnecessary, and that decisions about bathrooms should be made at the local level.

Several Tennessee students, parents and educators, including Walker, spoke at the rally. Rep. John Ray Clemmons and Sen. Jeff Yarbro, both Nashville Democrats, also spoke, as did Nashville councilman Brett Withers.

Walker said he was glad to see state legislators at the event, and he extended an open for them to visit his class. He also extended the invitation to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. 

“Before I started teaching, I kind of assumed everyone had the same upbringing I did,” said Walker, who teaches agriculture science. “That’s just not the case. Students come from all different walks of life, not just LGBT students. I have students who are immigrants; I have students who are refugees. If I can just have one lawmaker sit in my class and hear the stories these kids are living at 14, 15 years old, it would completely change their perspective.”

Walker said that laws targeting any group of his students keep him from doing his job.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville teacher Westlee Walker speaks in support of his transgender students at a rally last Friday by the state Capitol in Nashville.

“If I cannot create that environment in my building, where a student who feels like they are alienated doesn’t feel safe, then I am failing as a teacher at a very basic level,” he said.

In light of the Trump administration’s decision, Director Shawn Joseph issued a statement reaffirming Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools’ policies aimed at protecting students and employees who say their gender identities are different from the ones on their birth certificates.

Shelby County Schools officials said in an emailed statement on Monday that district officials “will continue to closely follow the development of the law on this subject and await guidance from the State’s General Assembly and Board of Education before issuing a formal opinion about whether changes should be made to the District’s current practices.”

Until then, the statement continues, “Shelby County Schools will continue working with families individually to ensure all of our students’ educational needs are properly addressed.”

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.”