Educators worry legislature's effort to cut red tape could go too far

When are state rules for schools “distractions” or “red tape” and when do they matter to protecting kids or helping them learn?

That question is at the heart of a wide-ranging bill in Indiana Senate intended to reduce unnecessary regulation, but which has raised alarms among some educators that the roll backs could end up hindering efforts to support student learning.

Senate Bill 500 includes changes to rules on everything from firing teachers to collecting data to bullying to public school accreditation. The bill resulted from conversations Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon, had with school leaders across the state, he said, who wanted fewer regulations to allow more focus on learning. 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.

One example is portion of the bill aimed at cutting down the reams of data schools must report to the state.

Russ Skiba, an Indiana University professor and director of the school’s Equity Project, said the bill would repeal of laws that ask schools to collect statistics on gender, race, ethnicity, disability status of students who are expelled or suspended. The state would never have learned that serious school discipline is disproportionately applied at much higher rates for black students — news that made headlines last year — if schools weren’t asked to collect that data.

That information was so valuable that other bills were introduced this year to try to foster fairer discipline in schools based on data showing those disparities.

“(Removing) these reporting requirements would severely hamper our state and local school districts making decisions based on that data,” Skiba said. “When we don’t look at data, we place ourselves at risk.”

Superintendents from across the state, as well representatives from the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and the lobbying arm of education policy nonprofit the Institute for Quality Education, said they broadly agreed with the bill’s goal to get rid of administrative burdens on schools that keep them from focusing on teaching students.

“This is what I would call the boots-on-the-ground bill,” said Michael Beresford, assistant superintendent with Hamilton Southeastern schools. “This is something that will have immediate impact on schools in Indiana.”

But teachers and others said this bill is about much more than reporting.

For example, one provision would allow the Indiana State Board of Education to waive nearly any state rule or law it chooses at the request of a school. Gail Zeheralis, an Indiana State Teachers Association lobbyist, said that could apply to collective bargaining, protection of personal data and other important rules.

“It’s also kind of a huge ‘trust-us’ bill because there are reasons that laws emerge and rules apply,” Zeheralis said. “If this were just about reports and reporting and obsolete statues, that would be one thing. But 44 percent of it constitutes policy changes.”

While there was support for getting rid of laws that several speakers did say seemed obsolete — does a requirement to teach about Arbor Day belong in state law, Miller asked? — some of the targeted regulations address important matters such as student health and safety. That seemed especially odd to John Barnes, state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s lobbyist, given that one of the General Assembly’s biggest priorities was student safety just a couple years ago, he said.

Another example: High school senior Hunter Sego and his mom, Kathy Sego, implored the committee not to repeal the 2007 Diabetes School Care Act, which allows students to carry and self-administer diabetes medication and trains teachers and school staff to help them if needed. Before the bill was passed, Hunter Sego said his school was “effectively punishing” him for having diabetes.

“If you take this away, we lose our immunity to do the right thing,” Kathy Sego said. “As a teacher, I want to do the right thing, and as a parent, I expect teachers to do the right thing.”

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said he was concerned that the committee wouldn’t have time to read the full 300-plus page bill and discuss all its key elements before a vote. That could shelve the whole idea of a major deregulation effort this year.

“This could be an insurmountable task for us to accomplish during this session,” Kruse said. “I have concerns here that we are not going to be able to do justice and the proper job in the limited amount of time that we have.”

The bill is expected to be voted on next week. The education committee considered six other bills today:

  • STEM dual-credit associate degree pilot programSenate Bill 259. The bill would create a pilot program of five high schools, to be chosen by the Indiana Department of Education, to allow students to take classes toward an associate’s degree in science, technology, engineering or math by the time they graduate high school. The bill passed committee 9-0 and will be next heard on the senate floor.
  • Bilingual recognitionSenate Bill 267. The bill would give bilingual high school students a special certificate. The bill passed 9-0 to go to the full senate.
  • School counselorsSenate Bill 277. Committee chairman Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, withdrew a bill that would have called for at least one school counselor in every elementary school in the state, not including charter or private schools, effectively killing it. Kruse said he heard a number of concerns about the bill, including its $60 million price tag.
  • Teaching ethnic historySenate Bill 495. The bill would require elementary and high schools to teach about ethnic minority groups in their social studies curriculum. The bill passed 8-2. Sen. Peter Miller, R-Avon, and Sen. Amanda Banks, R-Columbia City, voted no.
  • The “Merry Christmas” bill, Senate Bill 233. This bill would add language to current law to allow schools to have displays related to winter holidays, both religious and secular. Author Sen. James Smith, R-Charlestown, said that although these things are already legal, the bill gives schools additional support against lawsuits. The bill was held for a vote next week.
  • School discipline, Senate Bill 443. Authored by Kruse, the bill would prevent schools from suspending or expelling students based solely on attendance. It also provides grant money for schools to adopt positive, “evidence-based” discipline approaches and training for teachers and staff. The bill will be taken up for a vote by the committee next week.