Indiana teachers union calls on lawmakers to restore $9.3 million in state dollars to public schools

Up against a short session and a legislature dominated by Republicans who have historically battled with unions, Indiana’s largest teachers union nevertheless announced an ambitious set of goals for next year that include a call for more school funding and greater transparency for charter schools.

The Indiana State Teachers Association listed some proposals that have been on the legislative agenda for years, as well as a call to address a problem identified just last month: a $9.3 million shortfall in state funding to school districts.

The union also is asking the legislature, which convenes again in January, to pass laws making kindergarten mandatory; shave the graduation system down to a single diploma; adjust new graduation pathways; provide more support for kids dealing with trauma; fix the teacher licensure exams that could be exacerbating teacher shortages; and increase contract negotiating power for unions.

Teresa Meredith, the Indiana State Teachers Association president, conceded that the agenda won’t be easy to accomplish in a state where Republicans hold the most power. And this year’s session doesn’t include budget-writing, so will be a “short session,” making it even more difficult to make major changes. This year, too, education appears to be less of a focus than in years past.

Yet Meredith said she is still hopeful, and is already in talks with both Republican and Democrat lawmakers.

“It’s always hard to tell going into a legislative session, especially a short one,” Meredith said. “Probably none of these are going to surface as key leading bills, but they may surface as an amendment … at least in amendment form, we have a great chance of being able to be heard and maybe have some change.”

Meredith said ISTA wants to ensure Indiana’s recently announced funding shortfall is restored. Lawmakers said filling the $9.3 million gap was a priority, but in a non-budget-year, it’s not yet clear where that money will come from or what the process will be.

“Although, this amount is a small percentage of Indiana’s entire school funding, every dollar matters in our state’s cash-strapped schools,” ISTA’s agenda said. “Our kids deserve the commitment from our state to receive the funding they were promised – not funding cuts in the middle of the school year.”

The desire to make 5-year-old kindergartners part of Indiana’s compulsory education law — now set at age 7 — lines up with one of state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick’s goals. Both McCormick and ISTA say students need more support to be successful, and kindergarten is a common-sense way to even the playing field between kids from different backgrounds.

“In all the years I taught kindergarten, it always amazed me that students would show up in first or second grade who had never been in school,” Meredith said. “Around 7,000 kids don’t show up for kindergarten each year … They are behind from the get-go.”

ISTA wants to allow for a one-year grace period if parents request it, allowing children to wait until age 6. While few children show up as late as second grade, this is a move some advocates have been pushing for several years now, especially as Indiana increases services to preschoolers. Across the nation, 34 states and D.C. set their mandatory schooling age as 5 or 6.

As in years past, ISTA is also hoping Indiana will adopt more regulations of the state’s charter school market, including beefing up licensing requirements for teachers, studying the current system and existing demand, as well as specific changes to virtual schools, which they said have been “wholly unimpressive for kids and taxpayers.”

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Those requested changes would include a moratorium on virtual school growth and a funding formula change supported by other state policymakers so that money is distributed based on student academic progress rather than enrollment or attendance.

“There are concerns we have about transparency, in particular with virtual and voucher schools,” Meredith said. “When you look at the data and the stories we’ve read in the past few months on virtual schools, the class sizes and turnover … there are a lot of questions that have yet to be answered about that.”

The concerns come after Chalkbeat’s seven-month investigation into Indiana Virtual School, a full-time online charter school that demonstrated widespread low-performance and unusual spending, as well as a single-digit graduation rate in 2016.

Learn more about ISTA’s 2018 legislative priorities here.