These 9 education changes could move ahead in the legislature — but 6 others probably won't

February is beginning and the Indiana legislature is kicking it into gear. Already, the education issues that likely will be the biggest — and those that won’t — have come into focus.

There’s no question a huge battle will take place over the role of state Superintendent Glenda Ritz on the Indiana State Board of Education. But of the 122 education-focused bills the Indiana General Assembly is expected to consider, just a fraction will make it through to Gov. Mike Pence’s desk in April to become law.

Last week, Chalkbeat spoke with the chairmen of the education committees — Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, in the Senate and Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, in the House — about what’s likely to happen.

9 issues you can expect to hear more about:
1. Glenda Ritz’s future will be a major debate. If last week was any indication, Republicans are serious about major changes to the state superintendent’s role.

The House Education Committee passed two major bills that together would redefine Ritz’s job, her state board responsibilities and even the authority of the Indiana Department of Education, which Ritz oversees.

House Bill 1609 would erase the guarantee in state law that the state superintendent also serve as chairwoman of the state board. House bill 1486 makes a series of shifts in responsibilities over testing, standards, student data, state takeovers and teacher evaluation from Ritz or the education department to the state board.

Is there anything Ritz can do to slow this train?

That remains to be seen, but teachers unions have already begun rallying their members and supporters to sign petitions, call their legislators and attend legislative town hall events to protest the bills.

In an emotional committee meeting last week, Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, asked her Republican colleagues to consider a shared leadership model for the state board as a compromise. But so far, Republicans have not shown any signs of bending.

This week the Senate will take up its own version of the bill, Senate Bill 1, in the rules committee, where it will be shepherded by Sen. David Long, R-Fort Wayne, the Senate president.

2. The future of teachers unions is emerging as a serious issue. Flying somewhat under the radar is a bill that would bring huge changes that could leave teachers unions fighting for their futures.

Senate bill 538, heard last week in the Pensions and Labor Committee, could allow teachers to seek other organizations — such as companies that provide training or liability insurance — to negotiate on their behalf, not just unions.

Teachers already in unions would have to reaffirm their commitments to those unions. The law would require every local union to hold an election to re-select their union or choose a new organization as its bargaining representative by 2017.

With most of the state’s 289 school districts represented either by the Indiana State Teachers Association or the Indiana Federation of Teachers, that could place before them a monumental task of organizing for dozens of elections in each of the next three years.

3. Lawmakers are looking for ways to ensure more fairness in school discipline. The problem of huge racial disparities in discipline — for example, black boys are suspended and expelled at a much higher rate than their white classmates nationwide and in Indiana  — has emerged over the past year as a major concern.

The legislature is looking for a way to address it, but lawmakers may not choose the path activists would prefer.

Last year, those disparities were highlighted by a joint announcement of the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice, which called for action to ensure children are not disciplined unfairly. Indiana has among the biggest disparities in the nation.

An effort to create new laws to ensure fairness was dropped last year by the legislature and the question of what to do was sent instead to a summer study committee. Republican legislative leaders were persuaded that some changes are needed.

Kruse, for example, said it seemed schools that suspended students for too many absences were misguided.

“That’s not a reason to expel a kid,” Kruse said. “A lot of times, that isn’t the student’s decision. We need to do all we can to keep the kid part of the system.”

Bills proposed by Democratic legislators would require schools to follow discipline best practices. Instead, Republican leaders are supporting bills that would provide grants for schools to develop programs to improve school climate and find alternatives to suspension and expulsion. That is part of both House Bill 1640, co-authored by Behning and Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, and Senate Bill 443, a bill that has both Kruse and Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, as co-authors.

4. There’s a serious effort to get schools to count student test scores more in teacher evaluations. The question of whether student test scores should be a bigger factor in teacher evaluations is being simultaneously debated in the legislature and by the State Board of Education.

On Wednesday, the state board will consider recommendations that would establish guidelines that would expect students’ test score gains to count for up to 50 percent of their teachers’ evaluations.

When the evaluation law was created in 2011, the legislature specifically left it up to local school districts what percentage test scores should count. But House Bill 1486 would give the state board new authority to establish minimum and maximum thresholds for how much test scores should factor in.

If the bill passes, the guidance the state board is expected to offer to schools — advice that suggests test scores count for more — could instead eventually be required statewide.

5. A major overhaul of testing isn’t likely. A number of bills the Senate Education Committee will hear deal with changes to the state’s standardized testing system — some propose new tests while others undo the past year’s worth of work on creating a test just for Indiana.

Senate Bill 566 would get rid of ISTEP in favor of a potentially cheaper national test, while Senate Bill 501 proposes to go back to Indiana standards in place almost 10 years ago in 2006, effectively ending the education department’s current process working with vendors to write a new test aligned with new standards that were created last year. Kruse said he was wary of making too many changes to a system that has such big effects on students’ futures.

“I don’t want to mess up our kids and make it harder for them to get to college or would make it harder for them to get a job,” Kruse said.

However, Kruse did say some of the new ideas had merit, and it’s possible there could be new laws passed that would make changes to the tests, although maybe not dramatically overhaul the whole system.

6. Cutting red tape could mean dropping health and safety rules. The Senate is considering a huge 300-page bill aimed at cutting wasteful regulations author Pete Miller, R-Avon, says are unneeded. But some of the changes include fairly recently created laws that have raised objections.

For example, Senate Bill 500 would eliminate rules put into place in just the past few years aimed at curbing bullying and giving students with diabetes more control over their ability to administer insulin to themselves and test their blood sugar. It would also make accreditation for public schools voluntary.

Nervous lawmakers are giving the bill a closer look. A vote is expected in the Senate Education Committee this week.

7. Teachers look likely to get a tax credit. When lawmakers in committee heard House Bill 1005, which would give teachers a $200 tax credit for money they spend out of their own pockets for classroom supplies, there was unanimous support.

Not only were Democrats and Republicans for the bill, so were the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and the Indiana State Teachers Association — two groups that don’t often agree.

Look for the bill to continue sailing ahead.

8. Indiana might push ahead with a foreign language immersion pilot program. Behning is personally pushing House Bill 1635, which would create a pilot to establish programs that would allow students to learn half the day in a foreign language, such as Chinese, Spanish or French.

Behning said he modeled the bill after a similar effort in Utah, which has spurred widespread dual-language immersion, especially in Chinese. Behning, who traveled to China last year, said he believed more Hoosier children learning Chinese could give the state an advantage as the country becomes an increasingly important U.S. trading partner.

9. A big school funding debate is just about here. Most of the work on the state budget so far has taken place behind the scenes. But the budget will be released this month, and Republicans have promised an overhaul of the school funding formula. When school districts get a look at estimates for what those changes will mean for their districts, expect the debate to heat up in a hurry.

6 issues you can consider all but dead this session:

1. There’s not much enthusiasm for expanding preschool. One of last year’s biggest issues was Pence’s successful push to establish state-paid preschool for poor children for the first time.

The program, which launched last month, is tiny, but demand is strong. This year just 500 children are expected to enroll, including only about 100 students in Marion County. It is expected to grow to at least 1,600 next year. Senate Bill 344, authored by Democrat Rogers, would double the size of the pilot program. But Kruse said he does not expect the bill to get a hearing in his committee.

“I think it’s just too premature to do anything more,” Kruse said. “Our effort is supposed to be higher quality than other states, so if ours proves to be high quality, and that we’re helping students, then that makes it better to expand after we know it works right.”

2. Don’t expect a reconsideration of academic standards. Last year’s other big education debate resulted in a bill passing that outlawed Indiana’s use of Common Core standards and required the state to put new, locally created standards in place.

But those new standards didn’t satisfy critics of Common Core, which were jointly agreed to by 45 other states in an effort to ensure American children finish high school ready for college and careers. Some felt Indiana’s new standards, in place now since July, are too similar to Common Core and grumbled that perhaps standards should be changed again. Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, introduced Senate Bill 501, which would re-establish standards the state used in 2006.

But Kruse said he doesn’t expect the bill, or any other efforts to change the standards, to go forward.

“The development of standards has been done by teachers and educators, and in general it takes six months to a year to develop those standards,” Kruse said. “And just in one fell swoop and a couple senetences in a bill to eliminate that process — even I think it is not good.”

3. It’s not likely Indiana will establish an incentive for teachers to earn National Board certification. The certificate is a challenging credential awarded to applicants who demonstrate high quality teaching through a variety of evaluated tasks.

Indiana is way behind its neighbors when it comes to National Board certification, and ranks just 43rd among the states with only 168 teachers who have earned the credential. One of them is Ritz, who also served on the National Board of Professional Teaching Stanards board for a time.

Next door in Illinois, more than 6,000 teachers have National Board certification. Ohio and Kentucky each have more than 3,000 National Board certified teachers, and Kentucky has set a goal of at least one in each of its schools.

But Behning said he has yet to see evidence that the certificate has a demonstrated connection to improve student test scores. Unless he is convinced otherwise, he said he is unlikely to move forward two bills — House Bill 1332 and House Bill 1583 — that would offer incentives to teachers who earn the certification.

“I’ve said show me the data and I‘ll look at it,” he said.

4. Although Indiana is far behind in school counseling, efforts to change that appear dead. Last summer, an Indiana Chamber of Commerce survey raised big questions with a survey that showed 90 percent of the state’s counselors said less than half their time is spent helping students prepare for college or careers.

On top of that, Indiana has one of the nation’s worst ratios of counselors to students: just one for every 620 students. Only six other states do worse. Senate Bill 277, which Kruse co-authored, would require a guidance counselor in every Indiana school. But Kruse said last week the potential cost of the bill — estimated at nearly $60 million — would scuttle it. He killed the bill in the committee’s meeting this past Wednesday.

Instead, he said the idea could be reconsidered in the future, perhaps widening the requirement to require schools to have a counselor or social worker, depending on their needs.

5. Textbook fees will likely remain. Indiana is one of just two states that allow school districts to charge parents for their students’ textbooks rather than providing them for free. That doesn’t seem likely to change. Although Ritz, Democrats and unions have made this idea a centerpiece of their agendas, Senate Bill 340 is likely not moving forward, Kruse said. The bill is authored by Rogers.

“The biggest population who need it the most are getting free textbooks,” Kruse said. “There are a lot of people who make enough money, they can afford the textbook rental. And if we do make it free for everyone, that would take money from teacher salaries and everybody.”

6. At least in the House, there is not much enthusiasm for new rules around curriculum. While some Republicans are pushing for rolling back specific regulations, others want new rules around what kids must be taught and how schools should operate.

Behning, however, said he is wary of such bills.

“I generally still believe we shouldn’t micromanage but should provide more flexibility,” he said. “There are times when we may provide guidance.”

Some examples are curriculum changes that have been proposed are Senate Bill 233, requiring schools to allow Christmas displays; Senate Bill 130 requiring schools to teach cursive writing, and Senate Bill 562, which critics say would allow more discussion of the religious creation stories alongside the theory of evolution in science classes, as well as global warming.

While there is some enthusiasm for those ideas in the Senate — all three have passed the Senate in recent years — Behning said he would need to be persuaded to give bills that dictate curriculum and school changes hearings in the House.

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