Pronouns, libraries, and textbook fees: The K-12 policy changes Indiana lawmakers made this year

Coats, bags, and other things in student lockers.
The 2023 Indiana legislative session ended early on Friday, April 28. Education played a big part in the legislative session as lawmakers passed bills dealing with student pronouns, funding, school libraries, and more. (Aleksandra Appleton / Chalkbeat)

State legislators have introduced more than 100 new education bills and bills impacting schools and students during Indiana’s 2023 legislative session. For the latest Indiana education news, sign up for Chalkbeat Indiana’s free newsletter here.

This article was originally published in the Indiana Capital Chronicle. It has been edited by Chalkbeat Indiana to only include education and student-focused legislation. 

Indiana’s Republican-controlled General Assembly convened for 110 days, during which education, health care, and taxes dominated much of the discourse. 

The highlight, however, was the passage of Indiana’s $44 billion biennial budget plan.

Here’s a recap of the education issues — some big, some small — and a look at what prevailed and what didn’t quite come together before the 2023 session came to a close early Friday morning.

Holcomb agenda achieves success

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s 2023 legislative agenda highlighted proposals for several major funding increases in the next two-year state budget, including paying for all K-12 textbooks, salary increases for state police troopers, and millions more for public health services in all 92 counties. 

A massive private school voucher expansion was the sticking point in the final hours of the session — although vouchers weren’t part of Holcomb’s priorities. 

Still, the governor got most of what he wanted — saying he will “gladly sign” the final budget draft — and praised lawmakers for their work an hour after the session’s end.

Indiana families shielded from K-12 textbook fees

Indiana’s governor rallied hard to eliminate textbook and curricular fees for Hoosier kids. Figuring out how to fund the ask proved less straightforward, though.

Holcomb’s proposed budget explicitly included a line item for textbook fees — separate from the school funding formula — directing funds to the state education department, which would then be responsible for dishing out textbook dollars to schools.

But House budget writers originally took a different approach, seeking to require schools to dip into their foundational funding to fully pay students’ curricular materials costs.

Pushback from public school officials prompted changes to that funding mechanism in the final budget plan.

Now, a $160 million annual line item — added by Senate Republicans — ensures that Hoosier families will not have to pay student textbook fees in K-12 public schools. Private school students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch will also see their textbook fees waived, according to the budget. 

Grant program for college access gets a boost

The Holcomb administration’s push to get more Hoosiers educated included a move to automatically enroll eligible Hoosier students into Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars Program, a statewide grant program that helps students from low-income backgrounds attend two- and four-year schools.

A bill doing just that advanced to the governor’s desk last week. 

House Bill 1449 requires the Indiana Commission for Higher Education to work with the state education department to identify kids who qualify for the program, and then notify students and parents about their eligibility. Students must agree to participate in 21st Century Scholars and can opt out at any time.

Funding for Martin University increases

Also part of Holcomb’s agenda was a proposed $10 million for Martin University — the state’s only predominantly black institution — specifically to help the students from low-income backgrounds, students of color, and adult-learner populations served by the university. 

The House GOP budget plan matched that request, but Senate Republicans opted to give every higher education institution in Indiana access to that $10 million over the biennium for students of color, as well as first-generation students and those from low-income backgrounds.

The final budget landed somewhere in between, appropriating $5 million to Martin University, and creating another $5 million pot for all other Hoosier colleges and universities.

Feat of imagination: more kids reading

Country music icon Dolly Parton’s book program mails over two million books monthly to children across the country — and elsewhere — monthly, according to its website. Now, the Imagination Library is set to be available statewide in Indiana.

Launching the program was a priority for Holcomb, as well as some lawmakers, and they saw success in the final version of the state’s two-year, $44.5 billion budget. It’s one line item in the 249-page document: a $6 million appropriation.

Lawmakers address pronoun changes in classrooms

A controversial bill mandating that Indiana schools notify parents when a student asks for name or pronoun changes is now awaiting a signature from the governor.

House Bill 1608 also bans human sexuality instruction to the youngest Hoosier students.

The proposal is reminiscent of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law that has been described by some as one of the most “hateful” pieces of legislation in the country.

Supporters say parents have the “right” and “responsibility” to control what their children learn — and are called — when at school.

But critics of the bill — which was pared down in its final iteration — have argued that it’s part of a nationwide wave of legislation “singling out LGBTQ+ people and their families.” More specifically, they say that the legislation could put transgender children at risk of harm if they’re outed to unsupportive or abusive parents.

New process to govern school library book grievances

In the final hours of the legislative session, Republican state lawmakers resurrected a much-debated ban on materials deemed “obscene “or “harmful to minors” in school and public libraries.

The bill requires school libraries to publicly post lists of books in their collection and create a formal grievance process for parents and community members who live in the district to object to certain materials in circulation.

As part of that process, school boards must review those challenges at their next public meeting. An appeals process must also be established if officials don’t agree with the request.

Language in House Bill 1447 also removes “educational purposes” as a reason that schools or district board members could claim legal protection for sharing “harmful material” with underage students. 

Public libraries would not be affected, however, despite other proposals debated earlier in the session that would have expanded the language’s reach. The bill only applies to public and charter schools, not private schools.

Bills on partisan school boards, child care fall short

Republican lawmakers touted big wins across the board at the conclusion of the legislative session, but several big-ticket items didn’t make it across the finish line. 

Many of the measures are expected to be reworked and introduced again next year.

A bill that would have let Hoosier communities decide if local school board elections should be partisan died in the House in February

That means school board races will stay nonpartisan,  at least for now. Similar bills have circulated around the Statehouse in years past, and GOP leadership said others are likely to come up again in the future.

With this year’s House Bill 1428, specifically, Republican lawmakers could not find consensus over whether school board candidates should have to be nominated by party primaries or only be listed by political party on the November general election ballot.

Something that didn’t get too much attention through the 2023 session was child care and early childhood education. Though legislators expanded eligibility for On My Way Pre-K from 127% to 150% of the federal poverty limit, roughly $41,625 annually for a family of four, they didn’t add more funding. 

Leaders said that current expenditures left money behind, including in the Child Care Development Fund. However, families and businesses alike bemoan the shortage of quality child care available in communities, saying it hampers economic growth.

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Indiana Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Niki Kelly for questions: Follow Indiana Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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