Who Is In Charge

Here are the 43 education bills still alive in the Indiana legislature

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

The Indiana Senate’s approval of Senate Bill 91, which would void national Common Core standards that the state adopted in 2010, is probably the biggest education story of the legislative session so far.

But at the halfway point of the legislature’s 2014 “short” session (an off year between biennial budget-making odd years) that isn’t the only education story. In fact, despite some lawmaker predictions that this would not be a big year for education bills, there are quite a lot of education issues advancing to the legislature’s second half, when bills approved by the House and Senate are sent across the statehouse for consideration in the other chamber.

Chalkbeat will be tracking 43 education bills as they head to committees for consideration beginning next week. Here’s a look at them:

Data security

In a bit of a surprise this week, two of three bills dealing with the oversight of education data died in the House and Senate. One bill did make it through:

Early Education

Preschool is the big early education bill this session, but it’s not the only one related to early learning:

Vouchers

A bill that would have made ISTEP optional for private schools receiving publicly funded tuition vouchers was ultimately dropped, but one other voucher bill made it through:

  • Voucher special education. Senate Bill 282 would send extra special education funding to private schools when students in special education use vouchers to attend. It passed the Senate 31-16.

Charter schools

Six bills related to charter schools are still moving through the legislature. Among them:

  • Innovation schools. The most controversial charter school bill is House Bill 1321, which would allow Indianapolis Public Schools to forge unique partnerships with charter schools. Unions have opposed a provision that would allow the charter school groups to hire teachers separate from the IPS union contract even if they worked at an IPS school. The bill passed the House 54-37.
  • Charter school compacts. While House Bill 1321 applies just to IPS and allows charter school operators to run IPS schools, House Bill 1063 applies a similar concept to the entire state but has a more straightforward focus. It allows districts to trade building space or services to charter schools in return for the ability to count test scores from charter schools in the district averages. It passed the House 97-0.
  • Dropout recovery charter schools. Senate bill 159 would continue to fund dropout recovery charter schools, which mostly serve adults, separately from the K-12 funding formula. It lifts a restriction against opening new dropout recovery charter schools but also creates a new approval process for them. The bill passed the House 92-0. House Bill 1028, which requires a study of the schools, passed the Senate 49-0.
  • Charter school accountability. Senate Bill 205 limits charter school contracts to seven years and requires sponsors to close schools that don’t meet minimum standards. The bill also establishes a means for determining if schools stay in state takeover. It passed the Senate 48-0.
  • Charter school funding flexibility. Senate Bill 321 gives charter school operators new flexibility to share funds across multiple schools. It passed the Senate 35-13.
  • Athletic participation. House bill 1047 allows virtual charter school students to participate in sports at their local public school districts. In one of the the closest votes of the session, it passed the House 51-44.

School safety

Nine bills that address questions related to the health or safety of children include:

  • School bus cameras. Similar to red light cameras, House Bill 1042 would allow cameras placed on school buses to capture images of cars that violate traffic laws by passing school buses that are stopped with their lights flashing. It passed the House 71-21.
  • Expanded background checks. House Bill 1233 requires school employees receive an expanded background check every five years. It passed the House 93-0.
  • Bus out of service order. House Bill 1303 provides for additional notifications if a bus is ruled out of service during inspection.
  • Allergic reaction injections. Senate Bill 245 allows school districts to keep EpiPens and administer them if needed. It passed the Senate 49-0. House Bill 1323 has a similar goal for colleges. It passed the House 90-0.
  • School resource officers. Senate Bill 85 allow grants for law officers in schools to be used for training the officers and requires them to be employed by a law enforcement agency. It passed the Senate 47-1.
  • School bus driver physicals. Senate Bill 278 requires school bus drivers to undergo physical exams. It passed the Senate 40-8.
  • School safety division. Senate Bill 344 establishes a school building safety division within the Indiana Department of Education. It passed the Senate 48-0.
  • Immunity for health issues. House Bill 1204 gives school districts immunity for incidents that arise from student health conditions that were not previously disclosed to the district. It passed the House 96-0.
  • Student athlete health awareness. House Bill 1290 aims to educate coaches and others of the risks of sudden cardiac arrest for athletes. It passed the House 87-9.

Instruction

Several bills deal with what is taught in schools, when students can be excused, who teaches or how students are credentialed when they graduate. Among them:

  • Common Core. After it passed the Senate 36-12, Senate Bill 91, voiding Common Core standards, now heads to the House.
  • State fair absences. Two bills would allow excused absences from school for children participating in the state fair. House Bill 1056 passed 93-0 and Senate Bill 114 passed 28-21.
  • Career and technical education. House Bill 1181 makes career and technical centers eligible for state grants and special funds. It passed the House 92-0. House Bill 1064 creates a study of the return on investment of career and technical education programs in Indiana. It passed the House 94-0.
  • Career and technical diploma. House Bill 1213 creates a new career and technical diploma. It passed the House 92-0.
  • Cursive writing. For the third consecutive year, a bill passed the Senate requiring schools to teach cursive handwriting. Senate Bill 113 passed the Senate 39-9.
  • Veterans to teachers. Senate Bill 331 is designed to ease the transition from military service to teaching. It passed the Senate 46-0.
  • Teacher preparation program. Senate Bill 204 requires teacher education programs to submit data about their graduates to the Indiana Department of Education and establishes a rating system. It passed the Senate 48-0. A similar bill, House Bill 1388, passed the House 95-0.
  • High ability students. House Bill 1319 requires more reporting from schools about students who score in the high ability range on ISTEP. It passed the House 95-0.
  • Teacher choice program. Senate Bill 264 makes highly rated teachers who take jobs at D or F-rated traditional public or charter schools eligible for extra pay if the legislature approves money for stipends in next year’s budget. It passed the Senate 34-14.
  • Music curriculum. Senate Bill 276 requires schools to assure music is part of the curriculum, including ensembles. It passed the Senate 40-8.
  • Teacher contracts. Senate Bill 284 sets 14 days before the start of work as the deadline by which a teacher is bound by the contract they have signed with a school district and cannot sign another valid contract. It passed the Senate 48-0.
  • Winter holiday traditions. Aimed at protecting Christmas traditions, Senate Bill 326 permits schools to teach about winter holidays and use holiday symbols. It passed the Senate 48-0.

School funding

Five bills address questions of how schools are funded:

  • Tax cap fix. Property tax caps have begun causing budget shortfalls in some districts. House Bill 1062 and Senate Bill 143 together would give districts more flexibility to manage their debt and avoid those shortfalls. House Bill 1062 passed 94-0 while Senate Bill 143 passed 49-0.
  • School transfers. House Bill 1079 allows the siblings of a student who has transferred from one district to another to have preference for making the same transfer. It passed the House 97-0.
  • School referendum language. Senate Bill 207 makes changes to the ballot language schools use when they ask their communities to pass referendums for new tax money. It passed the Senate 49-0.
  • Complexity index. Senate Bill 363 makes changes to the way school poverty is calculated for some school districts. It passed the Senate 48-0.
  • Bond refunding. House Bill 1340 allows for bonds to be refunded when schools consolidate. It passed the House 94-0.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.