legislative update

Education wasn’t supposed to be a big deal for Indiana lawmakers in 2017, but major changes are on the horizon

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

Indiana’s 2017 legislative session might have began with a focus on roads and transportation, but lawmakers have still devoted a lot of time to a variety of education debates that could wind up making big changes for the state’s schools.

In just a week, Indiana lawmakers are expected to wrap this year’s legislative session. Until then, both sides are debating more controversial bills and putting final touches on others before they are sent to Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Many of these proposals will see further debate over the next week as they go through conference committee, when House and Senate lawmakers come together to reach compromises. Once a compromise is reached, bills will go back up for final votes in the House and Senate. Here’s where everything stands now.

Tying teacher evaluations to tests still troubles Democrats, educators

House Bill 1003, which proposes a plan for a system of tests to replace ISTEP that would be known as “ILEARN,” was up for debate in conference committee on Wednesday.

While the House version of the bill primarily reflected recommendations from a state panel charged with considering how to change the exams, the Senate version was more prescriptive, including suggestions from state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick to use a national college entrance test as the high school graduation exam.

The fact that neither bill version had a provision to remove test scores from teacher evaluations troubled a number of Democrats on the committee and educators who testified.

“Incorporating data based on a test that even the state legislature removed — you put us in a really difficult position when you required us to implement that,” said Scot Croner, superintendent in Blackford County.

Future of online program uncertain as preschool debate continues

Lawmakers also gathered Wednesday to wade through the many proposals on the table regarding Indiana’s preschool program in House Bill 1004, which it its current form would allow all of the state’s 92 counties to participate.

The original House plan expanded the program only up to 10 counties.

During the committee meeting, Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, reminded lawmakers that the state would only include suggested funding levels in the budget bill, not the preschool one — and the budget won’t be finalized likely until late next week. But money still factored into the conversation, with local and state advocates testifying and requesting as much funding as possible, particularly given the optimism around the state’s recent revenue report.

Behning also asked many of the educators and preschool advocates how they felt about a provision in the bill that would allocate $1 million per year for a Utah-based online preschool program called “Upstart,” which says it can prepare kids for kindergarten in 15 minutes per day, five days a week.

Read: How a computer program designed for home-based preschool in Utah could get a piece of Indiana’s education budget

Caryl Auslander, with the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, summed up many of the comments made about the online program:

“We’re not necessarily against Upstart, but we’re really supportive of making sure the limited dollars we have to spend are spent on high-quality programs going forward,” she said.

Lawmakers and those from the public who testified were also split on whether the final proposal should include controversial language that would expand the state’s voucher program to children who receive a preschool grant.

“We believe that language should have been struck,” Joel Hand, with the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, said Wednesday. “We believe that intertwining the voucher program with the preschool debate is really inappropriate.”

State superintendent bill stalls after Senate squabble

At this point, lawmakers have not explicitly indicated they have a problem with the Senate version of House Bill 1005, a move which must be made before the bill can go to a conference committee for further debate.

The proposal would allow Gov. Eric Holcomb, and future state executives, to choose Indiana’s state superintendent, rather than let voters pick in an election. An original version of the House bill proposed starting in 2021, meaning current state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick would serve just one term alongside Gov. Eric Holcomb.

The current version — after some twists and turns in the Senate — now has the appointment beginning in 2025, which means Holcomb wouldn’t be around to make the pick.

But the hold-up isn’t necessarily unusual, House Republican spokeswoman Erin Reece said.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, the bill’s author, told reporters yesterday that he’s still discussing the bill with his caucus and working on other agenda items.

The bill will likely see heavy debate as the Senate and House work out a final version, particularly regarding when the new appointment would begin.

Charter- and voucher-related proposals could affect failing virtual and private schools

Two complicated omnibus bills dealing with charter schools and vouchers will head into their final rounds of negotiations on Monday, and another that creates a voucher-like program to let kids take classes outside their public schools is headed to the governor.

The first omnibus bill, House Bill 1382, would make changes to how the Indiana State Board of Education handles authorizers who want to renew charters for schools that have failed for four years in a row, among numerous other provisions. It also would require virtual schools to adopt “student engagement” policies, which would allow them to remove students showing low participation and poor attendance.

In the Senate, the bill was amended to include changes to how charter school teachers can be licensed. At charter schools, current Indiana law says that 90 percent of teachers must hold a state teaching license, or be in the process of pursuing one. One proposal in the bill would loosen restrictions on which state permits count as full-fledged licenses and give more discretion to the state board to make those decisions.

The second, House Bill 1384, would require the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a school’s rate of student turnover from year to year when it assigns A-F accountability grades, which could have the most impact on both urban schools and virtual schools, whose grades tend to slip when students move in and out throughout a given school year.

The state board would also be tasked with determining a definition for “high-mobility” schools and the Indiana Department of Education would be required to publish a yearly report on the schools’ performance.

The bill also includes two proposals regarding private schools and vouchers. One would allow schools to appeal D or F grades that prohibit them from accepting new voucher students. Another would allow schools to become accredited more quickly, and thus accept voucher students sooner.

The voucher-like program that would be created by House Bill 1007 is known more widely as a “course access” program, and it could represent one way Indiana’s school choice strategy is broadening. Under the program as outlined in the bill, students could use public dollars to pay for outside schooling — one course at a time. Then, those course providers would get a cut of a school or district’s state funding.

The bill passed the House and was amended in committee to allow public school districts to deny students’ requests to enroll in outside courses if those courses are not actually required for graduation, would put a student above a full courseload of credits or are “logistically infeasible.”

School funding plans still coming into focus

Underlying many of the pending education bills is the debate over the state’s next two-year budget, which likely won’t be finalized until late next week.

The Senate proposal calls for raising education funding by $358 million, or 3.25 percent, over the next two years, while the House proposed a smaller $273 million, 2.8 percent funding increase for education last month. However, the House plan would include higher per-student funding.

Much of the Senate increase appears to come from revived provisions for teacher bonuses and boosts to the formula that adds dollars for districts with many poor students.

You can find more on the Senate education funding plan here, and House plan here.

Teens Take Charge

New York City students and podcasters team up to share stories of inequity in schools

PHOTO: Brett Rawson
Teens Take Charge is a student-led organization that hopes to spark change in schools.

If you ask Sherard Stephens, a senior at Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science in the Bronx, there are two different types of schools in New York City: There are schools where resources are plentiful and students feel challenged academically. But there are dozens of others that barely provide the basics, and those largely cater to black, Hispanic and poor students.

Stephens and other students like him think it’s time to talk about that, which is why they’ve launched Teens Take Charge. The new group, which includes students from almost every borough, wants to give young people a voice when it comes to issues they know well: what goes on in their own schools.

“It’s all about us talking about the fact that we don’t have the resources to reach the same level of success,” he said.

On Friday, Teens Take Charge will host their first event at the Bronx Library Center. Through letters, storytelling and poetry, students will tackle issues such as segregation and standardized testing. They hope their stories, along with student-moderated discussions, will spark change within their schools.

Called “To Whom it Should Concern,” the event will also feature art work and a photo booth, and will be completely led by students. But they’ve had help along the way from Handwritten, an organization that focuses on the art of writing by hand, along with The Bell, a new podcast created by Taylor McGraw and Adrian Uribarri to highlight student voices.

McGraw teaches writing at Achievement First University Prep High School in Brooklyn and Uribarri works in communications. Their podcast, which launched this month, focuses on school segregation in New York City — more than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that separate schools for black and white students are inherently unequal.

The podcast was inspired by just a few lines in Chief Justice Earl Warren’s opinion in that case, in which he wrote that segregation “generates a feeling of inferiority” for minority students “that may affect their hearts and minds.”

McGraw wanted to explore the impact that segregation has on students by letting them speak for themselves.

“I want to know: How does it make them think about themselves? How does it make them think about society and their place in it? And then, what’s their response to it?” McGraw said. “So many of the other inequities that we talk about and hear about stem from segregation.”

He hopes to share clips from Friday’s event in an upcoming podcast episode.

For more information about To Whom it Should Concern, click here. To listen to the first episode of The Bell or read more about Teens Take Charge, click here.

maybe next year

Senate Republicans kill bill that would have taken broad look at public education in Colorado

Students at Vista PEAK Exploratory in Aurora work on a math assignment. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

A Republican-controlled state Senate committee spiked a bill Wednesday that was meant to spark a broad conversation about the future of Colorado’s public schools.

Some lawmakers hoped House Bill 1287 would help sell voters on raising taxes to better fund the state’s schools. But the Senate State, Military and Veterans Affairs committee voted 3-2 along party lines to kill the legislation, which would have created a series of committees to examine the state’s education laws and make recommendations for changing them.

Republicans objected to the bill because they didn’t want to create more bureaucracy, and they thought it was a ploy to raise taxes.

The bill’s demise was a defeat for a group of the state’s most authoritative lawmakers on education policy. It was one of the top legislative priorities for state Reps. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, and Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican. Both serve of the state’s budget committee and rallied lawmakers around the bill.

Rankin called the bill the most important of his legislative career.

“I’m bitterly disappointed, although it was expected,” he said. “I certainly don’t intend to give up. We’ve worked for over three years to move this idea forward. We thought we built a bipartisan coalition that was interested and wanted to help. We thought we were making really good progress.”

Hamner also expressed dismay over the bill’s death.

“To die quietly like that in Senate was really, really surprising and disappointing,” Hamner said. “Do we still have a need to establish a vision for the future of our kids? Yes. Apparently we’re going to have to do that without our Senate majority.”

Last-minute amendments brought by state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, to address Senate GOP leadership’s concerns could not save the bill.

Supporters of the bill said the legislature needed to step in to help rethink Colorado’s education landscape holistically, not with piecemeal legislation. The state’s laws are outdated and clash with 21st century expectations, they said at Wednesday’s hearing.

“Our current collection of policies and laws have failed to keep pace with changes in expectations of our education system,” said Mark Sass, a Broomfield high school teacher and state director of a teacher fellowship program, Teach Plus. “We need a deliberate and collaborative conversation in our state, as to our vision of education.”

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said he supported the goal of the bill. His name was listed as a sponsor when the bill was first introduced. But he said he eventually concluded the bill was the wrong approach.

“I’m not sure this is the solution to get us there,” he said. “It’s time for us to take a bottom up approach. I get nervous about standing up and staffing and financing another government program.”

After the committee hearing, Sass said Republican lawmakers failed to realize their unique role in Colorado shaping statewide education policy. The state’s constitution gives no authority to the governor, the education commissioner or the State Board of Education to create a strategic plan.

“We need someone to drive this conversation,” he said. “If the legislature won’t, who will?”

Priola said in an interview that he had hoped for more time to lobby Senate leadership and members of the committee. Instead, he said he’d try again next year.

“We live in a state with 178 school districts and thousands of schools,” he said. “There can’t be one way of doing things, but there also can’t be 1,000. There has to be some commonality on what we’re doing and what direction we’re heading.”

Rankin was less committed in trying again next year.

“I want to think about,” he said. “I don’t think this elected, term-limited legislature with the background they come from can develop the kind of leadership needed for this movement.”

The death of House Bill 1287 puts another bipartisan piece of legislation on shaky ground.

House Bill 1340, sponsored by state Reps. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, and Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, would create a committee of lawmakers to study and make changes to the way Colorado funds its schools.

The state House of Representatives was expected to hold its final vote on that bill Wednesday morning. But Democratic leadership pushed the vote by a day.

Some Democrats in the House saw the two bills as a package, while Republicans in the Senate saw them as competing. With partisan rancor flaring in the waning days of the session, House Democrats could return the favor and kill the finance study bill.

Rankin, the House Republican, said he hoped his chamber’s leadership would let the finance study bill move forward. He introduced a similar bill two years ago but was unable to get the bill through the legislative process.

“I think it’s a good idea to take a hard look at school finance. Maybe we can get some dialogue going,” he said, adding that he believes lawmakers still need to think about a strategic plan for its schools.

Hamner, the House Democrat, said she also supported the finance study.

“I think their bill will be just fine,” she said. “Unless the Senate decides to kill it in State Affairs.”