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.

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

‘I just always thought I was stupid’: Indiana considers early screening for students with dyslexia

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
LeeAnn Bricker, a mom of two children with dyslexia, testifies to lawmakers about the importance of Senate Bill 217, which focuses on dyslexia.

State lawmaker Erin Houchin knew early in her son’s schooling that he struggled to read. But it would be years before she’d know why.

“He would bring papers home and say, ‘I got every answer wrong because I couldn’t read it,’” said Houchin, a Republican senator from Salem.

Her school reassured her that her son was a “typical boy” — that he was smart, and he’d grow out of it. Still, for years, he continued to struggle. Finally, after visits with a specialist two hours from their home, several batteries of tests, and stress over insurance coverage, Houchin’s family found a doctor at Riley Hospital for Children.

“He knew within the first five minutes (my son) had dyslexia because he had a screening process that can tell in a couple minutes,” Houchin said. “There just really is not an adequate screening process; there is not an adequate diagnosis process. Kids are falling through the cracks because they are not getting the right diagnosis.”

Read: What’s your education story: ‘I was too dyslexic to do any of that’

Houchin hopes a bill she is proposing this year, Senate Bill 217, can put the right resources in schools so students get the help they need.

Dyslexia is a learning disability where people have trouble correctly interpreting letters and words when reading or speaking. It could affect as many as one in five people and is frequently passed down genetically. Although dyslexia makes it difficult for students learning to read, it can be managed with the proper strategies and coaching.

Research suggests that gaps in reading early on in elementary school can persist into high school if they are not addressed.

The bill would require all district and charter schools to employ a simple test with parental consent to identify whether students could be at-risk for dyslexia in grades K-2 and report the results to the state department of education. It would also require schools to specially train a reading teacher about dyslexia and educate all teachers about dyslexia by the 2019-20 school year. The state would hire a dyslexia specialist to coordinate efforts.

But the bill also comes with a cost. If more students are diagnosed with dyslexia, they could qualify for special education services, which brings a $2,300 per-student grant from the state, according to estimates from the Legislative Services Agency. Screening, training, and hiring additional staff could also bring extra costs for districts and charter schools.

After passing the Senate unanimously, the bill was amended Tuesday in the House Education Committee to reduce some of the potential costs, by allowing districts and charter schools to share services and seek a waiver from the bill’s requirements for up to a year. However, it’s still unclear exactly how much the proposal could cost schools and how much the state grant would offset.

Indiana has taken several small steps over the years to address dyslexia, including adding a definition for it in state law in 2015 and requiring colleges to train teachers to recognize it in students — but not necessarily how to teach students with it.

But this bill would represent a huge step forward, said Cheryl Clemens, co-leader of Decoding Dyslexia-IN, a group of parents and community members from across the state who want to raise awareness about dyslexia.

Clemens said students often have to wait several years to be diagnosed — a critical amount of time when they can fall behind their peers. As the mother of three children with dyslexia, Clemens was excited when Houchin came to her group about legislation after years of looking for more support.

“We are losing so many children,”  Clemens said. “We are thrilled to have more legislative support.”

According to Decoding Dyslexia, 19 states have comprehensive dyslexia laws, which include provisions for screening, teacher training, pilot programs, or accommodations for students. Only nine states have a statewide dyslexia coordinator.

In her testimony to the Senate Education Committee, Clemens said she routinely encourages families who live near the Indiana-Ohio border to consider schools in Ohio, which has stronger dyslexia laws than Indiana.

“This bill will help to close the gap between Indiana’s current practices and what we know from current research,” Clemens said. “It will also help Indiana to catch up with other states in how we teach reading and other literacy skills.”

LeeAnn Bricker, a Zionsville parent of two children with dyslexia, said her oldest son, Alex, had a hard time reading for years before he was properly diagnosed. Once he finally began working with a tutor in second grade, he made a lot of progress — but he still struggles. Early intervention could change that, she said.

“Alex is currently a struggling freshman in high school who has to work three times as hard as his peers for one-half the gain,” Bricker said in her testimony to lawmakers. “I know the difference early identification and intervention make because what I didn’t know to help Alex, I now know to help my youngest son, Jacob.”

Bricker said when Alex finally learned he was dyslexic, it changed him.

“I just always thought I was stupid,” he told his mother.

“I really can’t handle even one more student suffering a journey like Alex’s,” Bricker said. “Imagine seven years of believing you are stupid.”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Parents feel left out of the Gary takeover debate. This mom pushed to be included.

PHOTO: Photo by Samuel L. Love via Flickr
Gary's Roosevelt High School. Johnson's eldest daughters graduated from the school before it was taken over by the state in 2012.

Kendra S. Johnson braved an ice storm and sold candy to cover a $60 bus fare so she could testify against a bill that would strip local control from the Gary and Muncie school districts.

After the bad weather thwarted the Gary mom’s attempt to travel more than two hours to Indianapolis for an earlier hearing on House Bill 1315, Johnson raised the money to make it for Thursday’s next step in the process.

She delivered an impassioned speech to Senate Appropriations committee members urging them to make sure parents get a chance to weigh in on a bill that will massively change how their children are educated. The committee did not vote on the bill Thursday.

Parents, community members, education advocates and others have criticized lawmakers and other policymakers for failing to include more people in coming up with solutions for the troubled Gary and Muncie districts. The lengths that Johnson went underscores how difficult it can be for community members to make their voices heard.

“A lot of times, parents feel like they don’t have people or organizations who listen to them so they can have the strength and courage to speak up,” Johnson, a mother of six, told Chalkbeat. “If you don’t go take advantage of being included, it will be taken from you.”

The bill would expand on the responsibilities of Gary’s emergency manager, allow Ball State University to take control of Muncie Schools and put in place a new system to help the state identify schools that could be on the way toward serious financial problems.

The legislation builds on last year’s Senate Bill 567, which established that the state could take over districts. This year’s bill has seen ferocious, sometimes somber, debate in the legislature. Democrats representing Gary and Muncie implored members of the Republican majority to scale the bill back to allow more time for the community to be involved.

Republicans, such as the bill’s author and House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Tim Brown, have said the financial and academic problems in the two districts warrant decisive action sooner, not later. On Thursday, Appropriations Chairman Ryan Mishler said he’d hold the bill for a vote for at least another week to allow time for discussion. The bill already passed the House, so it just needs to make it through the Senate to be on its way to becoming law.

State takeover of schools has seen mixed results. WFYI Public Media’s Eric Weddle explored that issue in a new story, while also detailing Gary Schools’ decades-long struggle to stay afloat.

Weddle spoke with Sharmayne McKinley, principal at Daniel Hale Williams Elementary Schools about what she remembers from when the state first announced the district would be taken over last year. One of emergency manager Peggy Hinckley’s first moves was to buy new books. Their previous ones were 10 years old.

“You’d have thought we were little kids in the candy store getting supplies for our kids,” McKinley says. “That was a milestone.”

Johnson, 53, who lives in the Dorie Miller Public Housing complex, represents Indiana in the National Coalition of ESEA Title I Parents and has been a parent advocate for several years now.

Because district takeover is uncharted territory in Indiana, there are many unknowns. Provisions in the bill that would make Muncie’s school board appointed and turn Gary’s into an advisory committee have elicited strong reactions from residents like Johnson who feel they’re losing their voices in their own schools.

“A lot of us don’t have the money to make the trip from Gary down here,” Johnson said. “The biggest reason I fight is so it can be said a voice was fighting for the parents, whether it was heard or not.”

Read the rest of WFYI’s story here, and find more of Chalkbeat’s legislative coverage here.