Huge senate bill would make school accreditation optional

Republican state Sen. Peter Miller thinks schools in Indiana need to cut reams of red tape so they can focus on what matters most — educating kids.

But does a accreditation, a process by which the Indiana Department of Education and other organizations ensure schools follow a variety of state rules, qualify as red tape? Miller thinks so.

Others, like the Indiana State Teachers Association, have questions.

“If we’re going to a system where accreditation is voluntary we at least should follow some basic legal standards included in the existing law related to health and safety, minimum time requirements, etc.,” said Kim Clements-Johnson, an ISTA spokeswoman. “We don’t believe the author’s intent, or that of the school districts’ that participated in the drafting of this bill, was to make important legal standards optional.”

Senate Bill 500 winds through 307 pages of changes to rules on everything from firing teachers to collecting data to how health is taught.

“Much of the bill shouldn’t be controversial at all, just changing definitions,” Miller said. “Granted, there are some policy changes as well, and that will get people’s attention. But if the primary purpose of schools is to educate kids, we’re distracting them from that main issue.”

The idea for the bill came from conversations Miller had with about 25 school districts across the state. He said districts asked for fewer time-consuming regulations so they can focus more on teaching.

“Some of these things are well intentioned, and 20 or 30 years ago we found a problem so we passed a law,” Miller said. “You get 20 or 30 of those things stacked up, and pretty soon you are diverting resources from the classroom.”

The bill addresses so many issues — teacher hiring and firing policies, school bus contracts, health curriculum, data collection, public records law — that it’s difficult to capture a single theme of what it’s all about. Miller said part of the goal is to eliminate areas of law that are conflicting, obsolete or duplicate requirements in other parts of state law.

But accreditation is a common process for schools at all levels, and making it optional would be a big change for Indiana.

Accreditation is a quality-assurance process whereby schools are evaluated by the Indiana Department of Education or other accrediting agencies to determine if they are adhering to rules, such as in school safety, health screenings and data reporting. Charter and private schools may choose to become accredited, but it’s not required under current law. That wouldn’t change.

Miller said accreditation can be a time-consuming and laborious process, so districts should be allowed to decide locally if they want to pursue it or postpone it. But schools in other midwestern cities have sometimes struggled after losing accreditation, resulting in lost enrollment, school closings and drops in state test scores.

“We understand there’s an interest in removing bureaucracy out of the service delivery of education, but there’s a lot to digest in this bill,” Clements-Johnson said. “The devil’s always in the details which tend to rest in a sea of unintended consequences. We hope and expect that Sen. Miller will be open to suggestions based on teacher experience, too.”

Miller said he would still encourage accreditation, and he thinks communities will let districts know if they are making a mistake by not pursuing it.

“If (schools) are seeing people leave, that would tell them that (accreditation) is something their community values, and they should go ahead and do this process,” Miller said. “But is that the case in every county across the state? I don’t know.”

Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said Miller needs to clarify exactly which aspects of accreditation pose problems. Although outside accrediting organizations have a more involved process, including visits to schools and formal reviews of school practices, state accreditation has far fewer hoops schools must jump through.

“If you are state accredited and all you’re doing is submitting a school improvement plan and (adhering to) legal standards, then that’s not an extensive process,” he said.

The bill mainly addresses regulations that were passed five or more years ago, an exception being a change in what public schools can charge charter schools to use empty district-owned buildings. A bill passed in 2011 allowed charters to lease those buildings for just $1, but SB 500 says they must go for market value.

Miller said he actually doesn’t agree with that change, and will have to look into it further. He said he wanted to start out thinking big, but is open to reinstating certain rules or regulations people think are important.

“We talk about the value of charter schools not having to have all this red tape, but we still have 90 percent of students in public schools,” Miller said. “Let’s face the reality — if (deregulation) is such a good thing, let’s look at where the vast majority of kids still go to school, and lets try to relieve them of these regulations as well.”