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Senate panel kills school district takeover proposal

Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.
Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.
Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat

An amendment to a bill designed to overhaul the state’s process to try to improve schools that consistently rate a D or F approved today removed a section that would have empowered the state to takeover entire school districts, not just individual schools.

The Indiana Senate Education Committee held off a vote on House Bill 1638 until next week, but the amendment, which made several changes, was approved.

That pleased Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, whose bipartisan discussions drove many of the changes, which she said would make “a bad bill better.” Committee Chairman Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, acknowledged that House Bill 1638, authored by House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, was much different after the amendment, making it less harsh by giving schools more opportunities to improve before the state gets involved.

Behning, and others, played roles in making changes, Kruse said.

“I think he thought it should have some additional changes made to it,” Kruse said. “The governor’s office, who is backing that bill as well, I think they thought there should be some changes to it, and those were the people who were for it. You had some people against it who thought it should be changed. I would consider it a pretty massive amendment that we put in today.”

A few key changes to the bill:

  • It proposes cutting to four years the time schools with D or F grades get before the state can take the school over or intervene in other ways. Under the bill, that change was set to take effect in June. The amendment puts the shorter timeline off an extra year until June of 2016 to give school districts more time to prepare.
  • The state board would not have the authority to take over an entire school district, which was part of the original bill.
  • A requirement that the Indiana State Board of Education appoint an outside team of people to aid troubled schools in developing an improvement plan was dropped.
  • A provision in the bill requiring any decision by the state board to close a school to pass with a two-thirds majority was introduced. Before, the board could decide to close low-scoring schools by a simple majority.
  • If the board wants close a school, it would have to notify the district, and the school would have 60 days to create a new plan for improvement to present again before the board for a final decision. The board would also have to create, in conjunction with the district, a plan for reassigning that school’s students to other schools.
  • A provision in the bill allowing up to 10 percent of teachers at a school in state takeover to work without a valid teaching license also was removed from the bill.

Rogers said she still might not vote for the bill even though she supported the amendment. Another amendment she proposed, which would have changed the composition of the state board of education but kept state Superintendent Glenda Ritz as its chairwoman, failed 7-4.

Rogers said the state board’s behavior at its March meeting, which she attended, was unacceptable. The board, she said, needed to work more effectively with the Indiana Department of Education. At last week’s hearing on the bill, she said she was nervous that lawmakers were poised to give the state board more power when its members have not earned it.

“Somebody told me that they were really on their best behavior then, and I really hadn’t seen them at their worst,” Rogers said of the March meeting. “As I watched the body language and the people kind of snickering … it reminded me of my first-grade students and how they used to act.”

Rogers’ defeated amendment matched much of the plan for changing the state board in Senate Bill 1, which is expected to be taken up soon by the House. She proposed to allow Gov. Mike Pence to appoint just four members — he now can appoint all 10 members besides Ritz — and give appointments for two board members to House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President David Long, who each would be required to consult first with minority party leaders.

Rogers said the amendment failed because Senate Republicans want to replace Ritz more than they want to make the board work better.

“What that lets you know is that what was most important to them is getting rid of the state superintendent as the chair of the state board,” Rogers said.

Kruse said he voted yes to Senate Bill 1, which would unseat Ritz, and no the amendment, which would keep her. But Kruse said he otherwise does support changes to how the state board is selected.

The committee is expected to vote on House Bill 1638 next week. It considered four other bills at its meeting:

  • Charter shopping. House Bill 1636 is aimed at stopping “charter shopping,” a practice by which some charter schools with failing grades have found new sponsors just before their sponsors moved to close them. It passed the committee 9-0.
  • Required remediation. House Bill 1637 would make changes to a law that requires students who score poorly on state tests to be identified for extra help. The bill passed committee 8-1.
  • Safety Drills. House Bill 1414 would require schools to hold more safety drills. The committee is expected to vote on the bill next week.
  • Freedom to teach. House Bill 1009 would allow any two teachers or a principal, superintendent or a combination apply for grants to create schools, districts or zones of schools. Those schools would get extra freedoms others don’t have to try out plans designed to raise student test scores and pay higher salaries to effective teachers. A vote on the bill is expected next week.

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