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Bill to create new agency advances as school data debate dissipates

A bill that collects education data under a new state agency advanced today, as a once-hot legislative debate over how student data is managed appears to have cooled.

House Bill 1003, authored by Rep. Steve Braun, R-Zionsville, aims to bring together data from K-12 schools, colleges, the state’s workforce development arm and business leaders with the goal of spotting trends and helping schools adapt to employer needs. It passed the Senate’s Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee 7-4.

When introduced, the bill raised alarms from state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s supporters, who initially viewed it as a power grab. The Indiana State Teachers Association, for example, initially criticized the bill for creating what it termed a state “data czar.” But during debate in the House, alterations were made to the bill that reassured Ritz, teachers unions and other critics that the bill would not take authority away from Ritz or the Indiana State Board of Education.

The bill was part of what once appeared to be a wave of new laws the legislature might produce this year related to the use and security of education data.

But two other bills that would have taken steps to redefine how the state’s education data is managed, accessed and stored, died in the Indiana legislature last month. So far, the concepts in those bills have not resurfaced as amendments in any other bills and House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said today he did not expect any parts of those bills to reappear as amendments.

House Bill 1320 would have created a data repository for parents but some critics worried that it could have made student personal information more vulnerable to being shared beyond schools and children’s families. Another bill, Senate Bill 277, was specifically designed to protect student information. It died after the author recognized technical errors in the bill language that it was too late to fix.

Ritz battled with Gov. Mike Pence last year over an agency he created, the Center for Education and Career Innovation, arguing the center’s hiring of a separate staff for the state board usurped duties assigned to her in law.

Among Ritz’s disputes with the state board last fall was a disagreement over who had authority to issue A to F school grades. The other 10 board members sparked a lawsuit from Ritz, the board’s chair, by writing a letter to legislative leaders asking for their help to issue the grades by calculating student test data outside of the Indiana Department of Education because they believed it should have been released earlier. Ritz said the grades were delayed because of testing errors.

Ritz’s suit, which alleged that by crafting the letter the other board members held a secret meeting in violation of state transparency laws, was dismissed because she did not consulted Attorney General Greg Zoeller before filing it. The A to F grades were released in December, nearly two months later than last year.

Braun ultimately persuaded Ritz, who did not object to the bill, that it was unrelated to her disagreements with the state board and Gov. Pence.