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.
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.”