Republican proposal would offer aspiring teachers free college tuition

A proposed bill in the Indiana legislature would give college students a chance to get their tuition fully paid for by the state if they agree to spend five years teaching in classrooms after they graduate.

Details of the bill — including what it would cost taxpayers — are still in the works. But House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said to expect that students who choose to pursue teaching degrees and rank in the top 20 percent of their high school class would be eligible for the lucrative incentive.

That would include tuition at any of Indiana’s public or private institutions, he said. Annual tuition at the University of Notre Dame is $48,000 a year. That’s much more than in-state tuition at public university. At Indiana University, for example, tuition is about $10,300 a year.

Addressing his colleagues on the House floor today during Organization Day, the one-day ceremonial start to the legislative session, Bosma said he hoped the bill would “get Indiana’s best and brightest to the classroom.”

“It’s our goal to attract the top students from Indiana high schools to teaching,” he said. “If we can get them to stay in five years, they’ll be hooked on teaching and consider it more of a career than a vocation.”

The bill, which will be formally introduced when the legislative session begins in January, comes as parts of the state confront difficulties hiring teachers. Chalkbeat has reported that school districts across the state are struggling to recruit teachers qualified to lead special education, math and science classes, especially in rural and low-income urban areas.

Both Republicans and Democrats expressed support for the bill, whcih is similar to a proposal put forth last summer by Democratic Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry.

“I’m pleased that Speaker Bosma is including the Next Generation Hoosier Educators plan as part of his education agenda in HB 1002,” Hendry said in a series of tweets today. “Making sure there are great teachers in every classroom is critically important to the future of our state, and it’s something we can all work together to solve. I look forward to helping make this plan a reality.”

Hendry introduced his plan in August as concerns about teacher hiring mounted.

Bosma said while House Bill 1002 would be similar to Hendry’s proposal, there would be key differences. For example, teachers would have to teach for five years, not four, to get their tuition paid, and the program would begin in 2017, not 2016.

Hendry estimated that his plan would cost $4.5 million. Bosma did not put a price tag on his plan but said he didn’t think funding would be a barrier, even though 2016 is not a budget year.

“We’re looking for available funds to fund those programs now,” Bosma said. “And if we can’t, we put the girders in place and add the walls next year.”

In his remarks today, Bosma also said he hopes to fast-track a bill to protect teachers from the sting of lower test scores.

As schools brace for expected drops in student ISTEP scores because of tougher standards, Bosma is backing legislation that would “decouple” student scores from teacher evaluations and bonus pay.

“We’d like to get it to the governor’s desk as quickly as possible,” Bosma said.

It’s less clear how the state’s Republican leadership plans to handle the effects of lower scores on the A-F grades assigned to schools. Bosma said lawmakers want to take more time to examine how to adjust grades to account for the expected surge in D and F schools.

ISTEP scores, which are due out in December, are expected to plunge due to the higher cutoff scores needed to pass that were approved by the state board in October. Passing rates are expected to sink an estimated 16 percentage points in English and 24 percentage points in math.

Many states have seen similar student test score drops as they’ve transitioned to tougher standards.

Under current law, schools that receive F-grades can face serious consequences, including being taken over by the state if they can’t raise grades after four years. Teachers who repeatedly see low ratings can face dismissal and might not be eligible for pay raises.

Democrats are urging the Republican leadership to consider altering the letter grades given the expected lower scores.

The Democratic leader in the Senate, Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said a dramatic jump in the number of D and F schools could be misleading to the public.

“That’s going to send an unfortunate message, really a misperception, of what’s really going on in our schools,” Lanane said.

Bosma said today that grades can’t be “held harmless” because 2016 grades (determined by a new grade calculation system) will rely more heavily on measuring how students have improved from one year to the next.

Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said restrictions from the federal government stemming from Indiana’s waiver from sanctions of the No Child Left Behind Law are the problem.

But the state education department said that data will still be collected, whether or not A-F grades are put on hold. That means student growth could be calculated either way.

And, Samantha Hart, a spokeswoman for the education department, said the proposals for a one-year pause in accountability that the department has put forth “are consistent with the spirit of the flexibility (the U.S. Department of Education) has offered.”