Mike Pence's 2015 education agenda: Wins, losses and consolation prizes

Gov. Mike Pence had a lot of big changes in mind for Indiana’s education system this year, and he declared victory when the legislature finished up its work last month.

Lawmakers, he said, had delivered on his December promise to make 2015 an “education session,” giving himself a perfect score for delivering all of his legislative goals for education.

That might be technically true.

But a close look at the education bills that passed suggest that, in some cases, Pence got little more than consolation prizes that fell well short of his original ambitions.

There’s a bill that addresses every one of Pence’s priorities: more money for schools in general, an extra funding boost for charter schools and career and technical education, an expanded the voucher program, more flexibility for teachers and schools to try innovative techniques, added bonus pay for highly rated teachers and big changes to the roles of the Indiana State Board of Education and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

But for some of them, it’s a pretty big stretch to say Pence got what he wanted.

That hasn’t stopped him from declaring victory.

“Hoosiers can rightly consider this legislative session a success,” Pence wrote in an op-ed last week. “I commend the members of the General Assembly and thank them for helping us provide flexibility and funding for students, parents, teachers and schools.”

Not unexpectedly, Democrats had a different view. They blasted the state’s new two-year budget, for instance, as rewarding wealthy suburban school districts at the expense of their poor urban counterparts.

“If this session was about education, the only thing we learned is the extent of damage one-party rule can inflict,” Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said in a statement.

Here’s a look at what became of the big issues on Pence’s agenda:


If there was one thing Pence was clear about, it was that he wanted the state board to have the option to remove state Superintendent Glenda Ritz as chair of the state board.

But until her term ends in 2016, she will be guaranteed that seat in state law.

Pence began the year championing House Bill 1609, which would have removed the guarantee that the state superintendent chair the state board this summer and left the state board unchanged.

But that wasn’t the bill the legislature ultimately passed.

Instead, lawmakers preferred Senate Bill 1, which doesn’t allow the state board to elect its chair until 2017.

The bill, which Pence signed into law last week, also changes the make-up of the state board, something Pence didn’t ask for and didn’t want. Now two of the appointments he formerly made go instead to the senate president and house speaker. Pence will now appoint eight of the 10 board members besides Ritz, rather than all 10.

Overall: Pence got what he wanted — sort of. It’s no secret that Pence and Ritz have had their differences, but this law will only threaten the leadership over the state board for future state superintendents. At the same time, Pence lost some of his appointing power.


From the beginning, Pence called for more money for schools and changes to how the state distributes it.

His proposed budget boosted aid for career and technical education, adult high school programs, preschool, basic state aid to schools, charter schools and merit-based raises for teachers.

So how did House Bill 1001, the final two-year budget passed by the General Assembly, line up with what he asked for?

First of all, he wanted schools to get more money, and they did. But the legislature gets more credit for that. Pence had proposed a $200 million jump in state aid for schools, but lawmakers went twice as big, settling for a more than $460 million increase for schools.

Pence got the extra bonus pay for high rated teachers that he asked for, and lawmakers agreed to remove a cap of $4,800 on the amount of tuition aid families can receive for their children to attend private elementary schools through the state voucher program. Now, like high school, the amount of the voucher will depend only on family income and the amount of per student aid in the child’s home school district.

The budget funneled about $48 million to career tech programs, and the way the state funds those programs was changed, but not exactly as Pence wanted. Going forward, funding will be based on student enrollment in introductory classes as well as more advanced ones. Pence had proposed funding the programs based on performance, such as how many students earn industry-recognized credentials.

Pence also pushed for a big $1,500 per-student grants for charter schools for outside-of-the-classroom costs like buildings and busing. That would have cost the state about $90 million over two years. Instead, the legislature set aside $10 million for grants of up to $500 per-student to help charter schools with those costs.

But all charter schools won’t qualify. Only those that received either an “A,” “B,” or “C” grade from the state or can show they out-perform nearby traditional public schools are eligible.

Overall: Pence generally met his goals. The governor’s proposed budget and the state’s final plan had much in common when it came to funding education programs, despite a sizable disparity in basic state aid amounts. Both Pence and lawmakers pushed for funding increases for adult high school students, the state’s preschool pilot program and support for teachers who earn high evaluation ratings, among other priorities.


Back in December, Pence said there was a serious need to establish a “Freedom to Teach” program so schools and teachers could be freed from what he described as constricting rules placed on them by their districts, unions and the state.

The bill passed, but the final version was a ghost of the original proposal.

House Bill 1009, in its original state, would have made substantial changes to rules governing teachers unions. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the bill that passed focused on “innovation network schools,” a less expansive idea that gives schools more freedom than they have but less than what the governor wanted.

Previously, only Indianapolis Public Schools was allowed to partner with an outside group, like a charter school, to create an innovation school, but the bill would give the opportunity to any district in the state.

Some former “Freedom to Teach” was later added Senate Bill 538, which would give non-union professional organizations more rights to serve teachers than they previously had, but it still fell far short of the original idea.

Overall: Pence’s plans fell a little flat. Those who pitched the idea as a way to reign in unions and cut bureaucratic entanglements for schools with fresh ideas had to settle for much less, including Pence, who touted “Freedom to Teach” as the crown-jewel of his education agenda. Although $10 million per year was set aside for innovation network schools, which have the spirit of the original proposal, the schools are not as free from district oversight or union rules as Pence hoped for.


House Bill 1638 set out to clarify when and how the state can step in to make changes in schools that consistently earn failing grades for low test scores.

It would have created “transformation zones” — special groups of struggling schools that would warrant more attention from the state, modeled after an appoach that’s been used in Evansville. It also would have let the Indiana State Board of Education take over an entire school district.

But early in the session, Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, persuaded her colleagues to scale back the bill and removed all references to transformation zones. Rogers thought the bill gave the state board too much power to decide the fate of a troubled school.

The only idea that remained from the original bill was a proposal to speed up the timeline by which a failing school can be taken over by the state. The state can now step in after four straight years of F grades, down from six years. The bill also contains language prohibiting schools from giving out gift cards to recruit students.

Pence backed the idea of “transformation zones” by setting aside money for it in his budget proposal, but he never explicitly pushed for the faster timeline to state takeover.

Overall: Pence can’t really claim a win. There was a lot of back-and-forth surrounding this bill, but the final version was focused very specifically on the takeover timeline and left out the big ideas Pence favored.