Who Is In Charge

Educators worry legislature's effort to cut red tape could go too far

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

When are state rules for schools “distractions” or “red tape” and when do they matter to protecting kids or helping them learn?

That question is at the heart of a wide-ranging bill in Indiana Senate intended to reduce unnecessary regulation, but which has raised alarms among some educators that the roll backs could end up hindering efforts to support student learning.

Senate Bill 500 includes changes to rules on everything from firing teachers to collecting data to bullying to public school accreditation. The bill resulted from conversations Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon, had with school leaders across the state, he said, who wanted fewer regulations to allow more focus on learning. Miller said part of the goal is to eliminate areas of law that are conflicting, obsolete or duplicate requirements in other parts of state law.

One example is portion of the bill aimed at cutting down the reams of data schools must report to the state.

Russ Skiba, an Indiana University professor and director of the school’s Equity Project, said the bill would repeal of laws that ask schools to collect statistics on gender, race, ethnicity, disability status of students who are expelled or suspended. The state would never have learned that serious school discipline is disproportionately applied at much higher rates for black students — news that made headlines last year — if schools weren’t asked to collect that data.

That information was so valuable that other bills were introduced this year to try to foster fairer discipline in schools based on data showing those disparities.

“(Removing) these reporting requirements would severely hamper our state and local school districts making decisions based on that data,” Skiba said. “When we don’t look at data, we place ourselves at risk.”

Superintendents from across the state, as well representatives from the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and the lobbying arm of education policy nonprofit the Institute for Quality Education, said they broadly agreed with the bill’s goal to get rid of administrative burdens on schools that keep them from focusing on teaching students.

“This is what I would call the boots-on-the-ground bill,” said Michael Beresford, assistant superintendent with Hamilton Southeastern schools. “This is something that will have immediate impact on schools in Indiana.”

But teachers and others said this bill is about much more than reporting.

For example, one provision would allow the Indiana State Board of Education to waive nearly any state rule or law it chooses at the request of a school. Gail Zeheralis, an Indiana State Teachers Association lobbyist, said that could apply to collective bargaining, protection of personal data and other important rules.

“It’s also kind of a huge ‘trust-us’ bill because there are reasons that laws emerge and rules apply,” Zeheralis said. “If this were just about reports and reporting and obsolete statues, that would be one thing. But 44 percent of it constitutes policy changes.”

While there was support for getting rid of laws that several speakers did say seemed obsolete — does a requirement to teach about Arbor Day belong in state law, Miller asked? — some of the targeted regulations address important matters such as student health and safety. That seemed especially odd to John Barnes, state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s lobbyist, given that one of the General Assembly’s biggest priorities was student safety just a couple years ago, he said.

Another example: High school senior Hunter Sego and his mom, Kathy Sego, implored the committee not to repeal the 2007 Diabetes School Care Act, which allows students to carry and self-administer diabetes medication and trains teachers and school staff to help them if needed. Before the bill was passed, Hunter Sego said his school was “effectively punishing” him for having diabetes.

“If you take this away, we lose our immunity to do the right thing,” Kathy Sego said. “As a teacher, I want to do the right thing, and as a parent, I expect teachers to do the right thing.”

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said he was concerned that the committee wouldn’t have time to read the full 300-plus page bill and discuss all its key elements before a vote. That could shelve the whole idea of a major deregulation effort this year.

“This could be an insurmountable task for us to accomplish during this session,” Kruse said. “I have concerns here that we are not going to be able to do justice and the proper job in the limited amount of time that we have.”

The bill is expected to be voted on next week. The education committee considered six other bills today:

  • STEM dual-credit associate degree pilot programSenate Bill 259. The bill would create a pilot program of five high schools, to be chosen by the Indiana Department of Education, to allow students to take classes toward an associate’s degree in science, technology, engineering or math by the time they graduate high school. The bill passed committee 9-0 and will be next heard on the senate floor.
  • Bilingual recognitionSenate Bill 267. The bill would give bilingual high school students a special certificate. The bill passed 9-0 to go to the full senate.
  • School counselorsSenate Bill 277. Committee chairman Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, withdrew a bill that would have called for at least one school counselor in every elementary school in the state, not including charter or private schools, effectively killing it. Kruse said he heard a number of concerns about the bill, including its $60 million price tag.
  • Teaching ethnic historySenate Bill 495. The bill would require elementary and high schools to teach about ethnic minority groups in their social studies curriculum. The bill passed 8-2. Sen. Peter Miller, R-Avon, and Sen. Amanda Banks, R-Columbia City, voted no.
  • The “Merry Christmas” bill, Senate Bill 233. This bill would add language to current law to allow schools to have displays related to winter holidays, both religious and secular. Author Sen. James Smith, R-Charlestown, said that although these things are already legal, the bill gives schools additional support against lawsuits. The bill was held for a vote next week.
  • School discipline, Senate Bill 443. Authored by Kruse, the bill would prevent schools from suspending or expelling students based solely on attendance. It also provides grant money for schools to adopt positive, “evidence-based” discipline approaches and training for teachers and staff. The bill will be taken up for a vote by the committee next week.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.