Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana school districts could sidestep state law under a new proposal encouraging ‘innovation’

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, chairman of the House Education Committee, speaks on a bill during the 2017 legislative session.

A proposal to allow schools and districts to waive state education rules in the name of innovation is the latest Indiana legislation with ties to one of the nation’s most influential conservative organizations.

Rep. Bob Behning, the Republican chairman of the House Education Committee, proposed the bill as a way to give school districts more flexibility to determine what students learn and how they spend their time. Up to eight districts would have a chance to form “coalitions” next year and submit their education plan to the Indiana State Board of Education for approval.

“Bringing these like-minded districts together is really like creating a think tank,” Behning said of the proposal, known as House Bill 1398.

Behning said the idea was brought to him by a superintendent from the rural Batesville school district and inspired by a Kansas program. That program stemmed from a model law written by the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, according to reporting by KCUR.

ALEC is made up of conservative lawmakers from across the country as well as business leaders, many of whom also fund the organization’s work. ALEC members jointly write sample laws that legislators can then advance in their own states.

The Indiana bill doesn’t go as far as ALEC’s 2013 “Innovation Schools and School Districts Act,” which suggests districts consider adjusting their testing and accountability rules. Under the proposed Indiana law, districts would be able to waive some teacher licensure rules and course requirements, such as taking Algebra 2, which a number of school leaders testified this week was burdensome for students not headed to college.

ALEC has had considerable influence in Indiana, inspiring fierce opposition from teachers unions and school choice critics. Several key lawmakers, including Behning, have participated in the group, and elements of its model laws have inspired education policy changes in the state in recent years. ALEC has also sought to promote Indiana’s laws on charter schools and private school vouchers nationally, even naming its model legislation for school choice programs the “Indiana Education Reform Package.”

Most of the districts whose leaders testified in favor of the bill on Tuesday were small, rural districts that want to expand out-of-school internships. Superintendents said students did not have time to pursue career-focused programs because of required high school classes — requirements the proposed law could do away with.

In that case, Behning said, students “are going to have to figure out other ways to demonstrate competency or mastery other than a specific course.”

The broader issue for those districts — making sure school is preparing students for available jobs — is one that has become a focal point for education policy in the state this year. Gov. Eric Holcomb, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, and Republican legislative leaders have all made job readiness the center of their 2018 policy agendas.

It’s an issue with bipartisan support, although several Democrats spoke against it. The bill is co-authored by House Minority Leader Terry Goodin, a Democrat who leads Crothersville Public Schools. Goodin said the bill would give “schools the flexibility to take the next step up,” particularly in their work-based learning programs.

Other lawmakers and advocates pointed out that districts are already able to collaborate and form partnerships with local companies.

“It’s not clear why this bill is necessary,” said John O’Neal, a lobbyist for the Indiana State Teachers Association. “We now have, in addition to our community-based public schools, we have innovation schools, transformation zones, freeway schools, voucher schools, state board turnaround schools, homeschools … this is another model, and every legislative session we have a new model proposed.”

The bill passed committee and next heads to the House floor for amendments and a final vote before moving over to the Senate.

 

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

What’s so hard about teaching ‘soft skills’? More than Indiana policymakers might think

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students at Robey Elementary School in Wayne Township.

Indiana schools have a long list of specific topics students must learn about before they graduate that are enshrined in state law — the U.S. Constitution, the Holocaust, the effects of alcohol and drugs. Soon, “employability skills” will join them.

Also known as “soft skills” and “21st Century Skills,” these are the intangible abilities that students might be expected to have once they graduate from high schools, and they have been part of the school experience for decades. Sometimes the skills in question focus more on character or morality, while other times — especially in high schools — they focus on job-readiness. But they all boil down to figuring out how to teach students skills that are academics-adjacent and, often, hard to measure.

While schools have been trying to teach these skills for years, they have been highlighted recently by policymakers and employers as critical for post-high school success. But, education researchers and advocates worry, legislating these programs can be a challenge — and might not lead to noticeable changes.

“Good schools have always done this,” said Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education consulting and policy firm. “But what often happens is it’s just one more thing that people have to do, and they end up checking that box.”

Under a law that passed this past spring with broad bipartisan support, all schools will have to incorporate these skills into their lessons beginning in 2019. The law comes as Indiana policymakers have made a big push to encourage “college- and career-readiness,” an education buzzword that has permeated conversations about recently adopted graduation requirements and city-led college access projects.

The bill itself is vague and says schools have to teach these skills across all subjects and occasionally create activities or special events on career awareness and development. The topics to be taught are specific to grade levels, spanning “basic employment concepts,” choosing careers based on interests and skills, job or higher education counseling, hands-on experiences, and workplace visits.

There is no method laid out for measuring schools’ performance or assessing the material.

The idea for the bill came from Indiana State Board of Education member David Freitas, who has long lobbied for such policies. The message could be as broad as encouraging conscientiousness and punctuality or as specific as teachers greeting each student in the morning with a firm handshake.

“These are core foundational skills that every person should have,” Freitas said. “It’s relevant today, it was relevant yesterday, and it’s going to be relevant tomorrow.”

The model that Indiana schools will have to eventually follow first requires the Indiana Department of Education to create employability skill standards, which the state board will eventually have to approve.

State officials won’t necessarily be starting from scratch — The U.S. Department of Education has developed an outline for teaching these skills and resources for schools, such as a checklist of academic and critical thinking skills that can be used to build lessons.

Indiana’s biggest challenges likely will be rolling the policy out in a way that ensures these skills are actually taught, taught well, and don’t become an “unfunded mandate.”

Jonathan Plucker, a professor and researcher at Johns Hopkins University who studies education policy and talent development, whose work has centered on designing assessments to measure topics like creativity and collaboration, said requiring schools to teach the skills can be a bigger obstacle than states realize.

“We don’t have great assessments for a lot of these things, so it is difficult to gauge whether you are doing a good job teaching students,” Plucker said. “There’s nothing in here about accountability, reporting, monitoring or assessment, and that’s how we ensure policies get enacted. You would never write a tax bill without any of those things.”

Plucker also thinks schools need to think long-term about what skills students may need in the future, not preparing them for the current job market.

“It would be much more powerful to take the longer-haul view of how are we educating them for the jobs of tomorrow, like where are we working in creativity and communication skills, collaboration skills?” Plucker said. “How are we helping them prepare for the jobs that we know are going to be the vast majority of career opportunities when they get out?”

Some schools already have programs in place. At Robey Elementary School in Wayne Township, their version of a soft skills program has focused on positive behavior. As the Robey Rockets, their motto is “BLAST” — Be Respectful, Lifelong learning, Active listening, Safety, Taking responsibility.

Most schools in the district have something similar, Principal Ben Markley said. The Garden City Gators have the three Gs, while the Bridgeport Knights have an “ARMOR” shield. In other districts, such as Franklin Township, South Creek Elementary School uses “GREAT” to encourage Generosity, Respect, Effort, positive Attitude, and Trustworthiness. It might seem simple, but Markley said he’s noticed its effects.

“You’ve got to have a common language,” Markley said. “When students go to physical education class or to art or to music … having a framework that they can count on, that they can improve upon over time, it is something that makes a difference for our kids.”

It’s unclear how much implementing the program will cost. Fiscal analysts from the Legislative Services Agency said the provisions in Senate Bill 297 would increase work for state education department employees, as well as districts carrying out another piece of the legislation — the Work Ethic Certificate program. The program is currently being tried out in 18 districts, and it partners districts and local employers together to create a credential students can earn if they demonstrate employability skills while in high school.

The Department of Workforce Development has issued grants to districts to support their work, but this year’s bill didn’t include any additional funding to expand the work ethic certificate program. It’s possible that could come next year, when lawmakers meet to craft the state’s next two-year budget.

Freitas said he’s really excited to see the plans take shape, and he knows some schools might already be working on these skills without the state requiring it. He said it’s not necessary that they hire any special teachers — it’s about focusing on the lessons and working soft skills into what’s already being taught.

“I see it embedded within the curriculum,” Freitas said. “Ten years from now, I think it’s important for everyone to be respectful to each other, civil to each other. So it has nothing to do with, ‘are they skills for the future’ — yeah, they are skills for the future. They are not going to change.”

This story has been corrected to reflect an updated description of Bellwether Education Partners.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Here’s what the Gary and Muncie takeover bill could mean for other Indiana districts

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Rep. Tim Brown, the author of House Bill 1315, makes his closing remarks.

Disregarding opposition from teachers and local leaders, Indiana lawmakers overwhelmingly voted Monday to strip power from the Gary and Muncie school boards, potentially eliminate the Muncie teachers union and place the district under outside control — and exempt it from required annual performance reports.

The groundbreaking bill delivers control of Muncie public schools to Ball State University, which has never run a public school district (although it currently operates two schools in the area), and frees Muncie from state performance reports imposed on other school districts.

During Monday’s special legislative session to wrap up unfinished work, a far-reaching district takeover bill easily passed — 63-30 in the House and 34-14 in the Senate — with dissent primarily from Democrats. The bill next heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb, who is likely to sign it.

Opponents said the bill infringes on residents’ control and stifles public input.

“Teachers in Muncie are despondent,” said Pat Kennedy, Muncie’s teachers union president. “Ball State keeps talking about partnership, but in a partnership both parties have meaningful impact, and this bill does not allow for that.”

Fortifying unprecedented legislation last year that enabled the state to intervene in Gary and Muncie, this year’s House Bill 1315 would put the Muncie district under the control of Ball State University, further empower Gary’s emergency manager, and effectively turn both districts’ elected boards of education into figureheads.

Read: Race can’t be ignored in takeover of Gary and Muncie schools, civic leaders say

For Indiana, district takeovers are uncharted territory, even though other states have seized such power with mixed results. Although the bill specifies the Gary and Muncie school districts, it alters state education policy in ways that could affect the rest of the state.

Rep. Tim Brown, a Republican from Crawfordsville and the bill’s author, said the bill gives troubled districts more opportunities to turn themselves around sooner.

“To say we’re going to do it the same way is just banging out head against the wall,” Brown said. “We have to change as we go forward because the times demand we change.”

Here are four key takeaways:

A-F grades for Muncie schools may disappear, a departure from Indiana’s history pushing school accountability

In an effort to encourage “innovative strategies,” the bill would free Ball State from reporting Muncie schools’ performance via the annual A-F grades measuring school and district improvement.

The provision represents a big step back from the version of  high-stakes school accountability touted by Republicans. Former Gov. Mike Pence often said that if students can be graded every day, schools can be graded every year.

Participation in state ratings would be optional for Ball State. State grades can come with serious consequences if schools reach four years of Fs, including closure or takeover.

School and district leaders have told policymakers and lawmakers frequently that letter grades don’t tell the whole story of their students — even state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick has echoed those sentiments.

Although some very small schools escape state ratings, Muncie would become the only district exempt from state grading, Indiana Department of Education’s spokesman Adam Baker said.

Because Ball State wouldn’t take control until later this summer, Muncie will still receive a letter grade for the current school year.

However, the district will still be subject to  federal law, which requires releasing a rating based on test scores, graduation rates, and other student and school achievement data. That measure will be calculated on a 100-point scale similar to the state’s A-F grades.

District finances will receive higher scrutiny, but much of that will be in private.

House Bill 1315 also creates a way for the state to intervene in districts experiencing financial hardship.

If a district meets certain financial criteria — which could be based on enrollment, cash balances, deficits or financial trends — the state’s Distressed Unit Appeal Board could require it to follow a “corrective action plan.” Failure to follow that plan or to make enough improvements could land the district on a financial watchlist.

That would be much earlier and more intensive financial intervention than is currently spelled out for schools.

Yet all deliberations about the action plan would be in secret, unless the district were placed on a watchlist. That means families and even teachers might not know about district-state finance plans.

Lawmakers defended the secrecy as a way to reassure district officials and prevent families from fleeing because of potential financial trouble.

“The concerns from school officials were they didn’t want flight just because they were asking for some help,” Brown said. “This bill allows some process for a gradual assistance … It won’t be a cliff.”

But some open-government advocates have called it a dangerous move that excludes the public from important discussions in communities.

The bill “robs the public of the ability to push their school boards to accept the help” of state officials and doesn’t give people the chance to speak out about difficult decisions facing their schools, said Steve Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association. “All of that is being done behind closed doors.”

Muncie stands to lose some stigma around takeover, but also potentially its union.

With Ball State taking control, Muncie would no longer be designated a “distressed” district. That might  lend credibility to the district, which has seen years of financial mismanagement.

But the move also could destroy the district’s teachers union. Ball State will get to decide whether Muncie teachers may retain their exclusive representative. So far, said Muncie teachers union President Pat Kennedy, it’s not clear what the answer will be, nor how the process for negotiating future teachers contracts would work.

Kennedy said teachers in Muncie feel like they’ve lost their voices in the process, and some see the change as punishment for the poor decision-making of previous administrators.

“This isn’t about the quality of Ball State as an institution,” Kennedy said. “What is the real value of this bill other than to take away teacher rights?”

Gary leaders worry about losing local control and input.

Gary public schools will continue to be run by its emergency manager, Peggy Hinckley, a former interim superintendent in Indianapolis Public Schools. Lawmakers from the area said that Hinckley, who has been on the job about a year, is helping get the district back on track.

Sen. Eddie Melton, a Democrat from Northwest Indiana, and others on Monday said that House Bill 1315 adds upheaval to an already difficult process that hasn’t had time to do what lawmakers created it to do. It also wasn’t urgent enough to quickly move ahead in a one-day special session, he said.

“This bill is not an emergency, and it does not contribute to building up the overall educational quality in Gary,” Melton said.

The bill demotes Gary’s elected school board to an advisory board that only can meet up to four times a year, and Hinckley is no longer required to consult with its members.

Indiana Democrats also said the bill could be a harbinger of future takeovers, and that other legislators should be sensitive to that before they vote for dramatic changes to others’ communities.

“Yes, it’s Gary today,” said Rep. Charlie Brown, a Democrat from the area. “But it could be you tomorrow.”