Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Which education bills are still alive — and which were left behind — in Indiana’s 2018 legislative session

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

With about five weeks to go in the 2018 legislative session, lawmakers are still aiming  to resolve issues of funding, diplomas, and district takeover — all proposals that are still alive despite the winnowing and rush that comes with a “short session.”

The short session — which alternates each year with a longer session focused on writing the next two-year budget — has given lawmakers only about 10 weeks to move education bills, which compete for their time and attention  with all of the other major issues facing the Republican-led state.

But legislators moved quickly this session to  address what districts consider one of the more urgent matters on the agenda: plugging a school funding gap, the result of a miscalculation in how many students would enroll in public schools over the next two years. Lawmakers quickly proposed two bills to address the shortfall, and the House even made it its highest legislative priority.

Both of the bills, which move money from a reserve fund to the state general fund, sped through their respective chambers, and are on-track to be moved through the opposing chamber. Even with revisions to the proposed law, it’s likely that a fix will be approved before the session ends in mid-March.

Also drawing lawmakers’ attention was a bill dealing with various aspects of the state’s new district takeover system. The proposal was catapulted front and center when lawmakers included a provision to strip Gary’s school board of its voting power, removing even its ability to fill its own vacancies, following the district’s inability to mitigate its $100 million in debt. Republican lawmakers are also largely behind a measure to give Ball State University the opportunity to take control of the struggling Muncie school district, which has had its own forays into debt and fiscal mismanagement.

Debate on the bill, which would also create an early warning system for school district financial health, went on for hours last week. Democrats from Muncie and Gary pleaded with their colleagues to oppose the bill, but it passed 64-27 that day.

Not every proposal made it through initial vetting. One that fell by the wayside was a priority of state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick: to make kindergarten mandatory. However, it gained no traction with lawmakers. Two bills addressing the issue were never given hearings.

Below is a summary of  some of the other education bills that are still alive this session, as well as those that were defeated. That does not mean they are officially dead; during the second half of the session, it’s not unheard of for issues to be revived, though it is unlikely.

BILLS THAT ARE MOVING FORWARD

Graduation and workforce

Senate Bill 50, which now includes the workforce provisions from Senate Bill 157, would allow students to stay in high school for an additional year to pursue advanced classes or finish a certification related to their careers. It would also create a state agency and executive to oversee career and technical education, among other proposals.

Senate Bill 177 and House Bill 1426 would combine Indiana’s four diplomas into a single diploma with four “designations” that mirror current diploma tracks. The bills would also allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider alternatives to Algebra 2 as a graduation requirement. The House bill would change the state high school exam to a national college-entrance exam, require high schools to test students in science, and eliminate the requirement that schools give the Accuplacer remediation test. It would also change rules for getting a graduation waiver and create an “alternate diploma” for students with severe special needs.

Finance

Senate Bill 189 and House Bill 1001 would close the gap in school funding that resulted from miscalculations in the number of students attending public schools. The bills would let the state transfer up to $25 million per year from a reserve fund to the state general fund, where it could then be distributed to districts.

House Bill 1315 deals with district takeover. The bill would reduce the powers of the Gary school board and make it an advisory committee. It allows Ball State University to take over the operation of Muncie Schools. It also would create a school district financial health dashboard that uses several fiscal indicators to determine if a district is at-risk and should be put on a watchlist.

Instruction

Senate Bill 172 would require public schools to offer computer science classes as an elective in high schools, as well as a part of the science curriculum for all students. The bill also sets up a grant program to pay for teacher training in computer science.

Senate Bill 297 would require schools to include “employability skills,” also known as “soft skills,” in their curriculums. The idea for the bill came from David Freitas, a member of the state board of education.

Senate Bill 65 would require parents to give their approval for children to participate in instruction on sex, including gender identity and sexual orientation. Currently, the system is opt-out, not opt-in, as the bill proposes.

Senate Bill 8 would require all districts, charter and private schools to teach cursive.

Teaching

House Bill 1399 would require the state board to create elementary teacher licenses in math and science.

Senate Bill 387 would allow the state to grant an “initial practitioner license” to prospective teachers even if they have not passed subject area exams so long as they have at least a 3.0 GPA, have completed student teaching, and have received a job with a school. The bill would let districts hire up to 10 percent of teachers with this license under these circumstances. The bill would also let districts pay teachers different amounts in an effort to fill jobs in special education, science or math fields. A previous measure that would let districts hire up to 10 percent of unlicensed teachers was removed.

Miscellaneous

House Bill 1420, among several other measures, would not let a student who has been expelled from a virtual charter school for non-attendance re-enroll in that same school during the same school year.

House Bill 1421 would ask the state education department to develop a school discipline model that reduces suspensions and expulsions, especially among students of color. It also requires the department provide guidance and information to districts, beginning in 2019, that want to use that model. It encourages the legislative council to study positive student discipline and restorative justice and asks the education department to survey districts on those practices.

House Bill 1398 would allow a group of charter schools and districts to form a “coalition” to pursue innovative academic strategies. Coalition members could also waive certain state requirements, such as the requirement that students pass Algebra 2 to graduate.

Senate Bill 217 would require districts and charter schools to screen students for dyslexia and by 2020, to employ at least one dyslexia specialist, among other provisions.

House Bill 1314 would set up data sharing between the state’s education and child services departments. It would also require that the Indiana State Board of Education release an annual report about foster youth education.

BILLS THAT ARE DEAD

Early education

Senate Bill 29 and House Bill 1042 would have allowed low-income families to apply for state preschool scholarships even if they were not employed, in school, or training for a job.

Senate Bill 272 and House Bill 1392 would have made kindergarten mandatory by lowering the state’s compulsory school age to 5. It is now 7.

School choice

Senate Bill 205 would have allowed students transferring from one private school to another to take their remaining voucher dollars with them that year. The bill initially saw support from the education committee, but the Senate Appropriations Committee did not hear it.

Senate Bills 315, 350, and 406 would have placed more restrictions on charter school authorizers and required them to show the state their schools are academically sound before they open additional schools or enroll more students. None of the bills received hearings.

Miscellaneous

Senate Bill 7 would have barred schools from starting before the last Monday in August. Such calendar bills have been proposed each year, and none have moved forward.

House Bill 1264 would have given grants to schools that applied to create “competency-based education” programs, which would let them alter instruction so that students move from lesson to lesson, or grade to grade, based on the skills they master, rather than time. The bill’s author, Rep. Tim Brown, decided not to hear the bill in House Ways and Means because of the cost involved. This is the second year the bill has failed.

You can find the status of all the bills introduced this year here, and Chalkbeat’s 2018 legislative coverage here.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

To reinvent career education, these Indiana districts are making up their own rules

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in Decatur Township work on physics problems. Decatur is one of seven districts in a new state initiative aimed at preparing kids for careers.

An Indianapolis school district will get more flexibility under a new state initiative that aims to change how students learn and prepare for jobs.

Decatur Township will join six other districts in a coalition that allows them to bypass certain state rules so students get more practical experience and share ideas to form more work-based study opportunities with local employers. The coalition was created by a law passed this year that is based on model law from one of the nation’s most influential conservative organizations, the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC.

The main rules that the coalition districts are looking for extra latitude on include allowing students to waive classes, such as Algebra 2, so they can gain work experience that might lead to a job or industry credential. The coalition would also like extra flexibility with teacher licensure so they can bring into the classroom experts in subjects affiliated with career and technical education.

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

Decatur Superintendent Matt Prusiecki said the coalition is working to put some of the new plans and programs in place for next school year. Being part of this collaborative group actively sharing ideas, he said, might help them stretch their resources and find new ways to give students more freedom to figure out their post-high school plans.

“Instead of saying, ‘We can’t do this because,’ it’s more of a, ‘Why can’t we do this? How do we get around these obstacles’?” Prusiecki said.

The Indiana State Board of Education gave the coalition, called the “Coalition of Continuous Improvement School Districts,” the go-ahead to start planning at its meeting earlier this month. Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, said this effort goes beyond just Indiana, as extending opportunities for career and technical education is becoming increasingly popular nationwide.

“Work-based study is definitely a buzz word around the country,” Behning told state board members. “How do we make school, and develop those skills in students, where everyone is not necessarily going to get a baccalaureate degree, but certainly can come out of school with a skill that will provide them employment outside of K-12.”

Earlier this year, when lawmakers were debating the bill, several Hoosier educators testified that courses like Algebra 2, which lawmakers made a requirement for graduation in 2007, interfere with students pursuing other opportunities — particularly if they are not interested in earning a four-year college degree.

Some schools, such as Noblesville High School, have already created Algebra 2 alternatives that some educators say are just as rigorous as the course, but have more real-world applications. Batesville, one of the districts that championed the original legislation, has also already created the kinds of local business partnerships that Prusiecki said he and other coalition members are looking to as examples.

Prusiecki said students would still have to follow the state’s new graduation pathways requirements. But with the freedom the coalition allows, they could substitute traditional courses in math or science with experiences in internships that could lead to a career.

“How do we connect (students) with these partnerships and relationships with businesses so we can get them high-wage, high-demand jobs?” Prusiecki said.

The coalition is also requesting the ability to create its own district teacher licenses. The licenses don’t have to meet the usual accreditation requirements from the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation. Teachers would still have to follow rules for criminal background checks, but the coalition members hope the licenses would have fewer requirements and let more people teach classes in subjects affiliated with career and technical education.

“The current ways (to be licensed) just seem to be a little cumbersome,” Prusiecki said. “This coalition is just trying to make opening those doors a lot wider so we can get things done possibly more efficiently, faster, and even possibly on a larger scale.”

But the state already has a workplace specialist permit, which can be earned by a person with experience in skilled trades or areas relevant to classes in a career center or a high school career and technical education program. It doesn’t require a college degree, but it does require applicants to pass a training and a basic skills exam. The coalition district law waives those rules and others for prospective educators.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she’s confused by the licensure waiver, which was not discussed during the state board meeting earlier this month or during the legislative session.

“I’m not going to pass a lot of judgement until I know more, but I need to hear why they need a different path that isn’t already available,” Meredith said. “There’s already such flexibility, it’s not super rigid with a workplace specialist.”

The coalition would still require that teachers be allowed to negotiate pay and benefits through their union.

The coalition districts still need the state to sign off on specific plans for what class pathways, teacher license options, or credential partnerships and opportunities they want to offer.

There’s an accountability piece to the coalition as well, Behning said, that gives districts more flexibility if they can show their efforts are leading to students getting jobs. Each year, the coalition must make a report to lawmakers on teacher qualifications and how the coalition affects certain metrics, such as graduation rate. Those metrics also have to include how much coalition work is costing each district, what work-based study opportunities students get from employer partners, and whether students are ultimately employed by partner organizations full-time.

Prusiecki did not want to reveal who the district is considering partnering with, but those agreements are in the works, and plans will need to be made quickly before the next school year.

“There’s a lot of risk-taking in this, and the piece of it, too, is that we’re putting a spotlight on ourselves as a school district,” Prusiecki said. “We’re willing to step out there and take those risks so we can help our communities.”

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.