The election of former Gov. Mike Pence as President Donald Trump’s vice president made Indiana a showcase for school choice advocates nationally. Indianapolis Public Schools, short on both cash and students, moved to close nearly half of its high schools and will ask taxpayers for nearly a billion dollars in extra funding. A spotlight was thrown on underperforming virtual schools.
Those are just a few of the educational challenges and opportunities that Indiana weathered in 2017 — many of which are also sure to capture headlines in the year ahead.
Here is a recap of some of the biggest issues Chalkbeat has covered over the past 12 months, and a hint of what’s likely to come.
- A virtual mess
Indiana Virtual School had 1 teacher for every 222 students in 2016-17 and a 5.7 percent graduation rate in 2016, yet has grown by thousands of students since it opened in 2011 — and received millions of dollars in state funding that was paid out, in part, to an affiliated for-profit company. The findings of a Chalkbeat investigation into the school prompted Gov. Eric Holcomb to call for “immediate attention and action” for virtual schools by the state board of education and to pledge to have his staff work with the board to make sure the schools and groups that oversee them are held accountable.
Even charter advocates agree that virtual schools’ authorizers could be more assertive in their oversight of virtual schools with poor performance, suggesting that an area of school choice that has remained largely under the radar could face a new level of scrutiny.
- A changing high school landscape
As enrollment in Indianapolis Public Schools has shrunk, the high schools have seen student population drop from about 26,000 at a peak in the late 1960s to about 5,600 this year. The school board voted to close three of the district’s seven high schools and use the opportunity to offer students a variety of programs in the remaining schools in areas such as information technology, construction and the arts.
Students will get to choose which school, and which program, they want to attend next fall. But while that overhaul has addressed the question of underutilized buildings, it has the potential to throw the enrollment system out of balance should more students choose some schools over others.
- The path to graduation
To ensure that Indiana’s high school graduates have the skills to fill workforce needs or succeed in college, state lawmakers called for an overhaul of graduation requirements earlier this year. The “graduation pathways” that were ultimately developed and approved by the state board impose new requirements on students, such as taking exams, completing advanced courses, or gaining credit for internships.
But they drew widespread opposition from parents and educators, who say the new requirements are complex and overlap with existing Indiana diploma expectations. The new rules could prove particularly burdensome for students with disabilities or those who struggle academically.
The rules are not the only new stumbling block for future graduates. Indiana was told by federal education officials earlier this year that students who graduate with the general diploma, rather than more rigorous Core 40 or honors diplomas, would not be counted in the state’s graduation rate. Lawmakers and education officials are under pressure to find a solution.
- Money matters
Come spring, some Indianapolis taxpayers have a big decision to make: Will they vote to increase property taxes and add $936 million in new funding over eight years to make improvements and cover the costs of operating the city’s largest district? Two referendums will be on the ballot in May, after the Indianapolis school board voted to put the matter to taxpayers.
About $200 million would go to pay for campus safety updates, such as improvements in lighting and new entrances. But the bulk of the money — $92 million a year — would be used for operating expenses, such as to cover the costs of special education and teacher raises.
The district is also hoping to change the way schools are funded with a new approach meant to send more money to schools with more poor students. At the same time, a special $6.5 million pool of money is going to programs that attract middle-class families. District leaders say the system will become more equitable over time, but it’s unclear how long it will take.
- Au revoir ISTEP
The end is nigh for the beleaguered state test known as ISTEP. In April, state lawmakers finally settled on a replacement. The new test, called ILEARN, will be used for the first time in 2019.
In choosing the new test, the Indiana Department of Education reached back to an earlier round of educational expectations, the Common Core. Although Indiana abruptly withdrew from the Common Core standards three years ago, the company charged with creating ILEARN will use questions developed for a Common Core test.
The state is still working to create the ILEARN exam system, and high school tests will be particularly tricky. Initially, the state planned to stick with year-end subject tests, as it did in the past, but the state board is now recommending a college entrance exam, such as the ACT or SAT. It’s not yet clear how these new suggestions will work into the state’s plans with the ILEARN vendor, American Institutes for Research.
- State dollars, private schools
Indiana has found itself at the center of a national debate over whether to give families state-funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition. A Chalkbeat investigation into the voucher program found that 306 of the 313 schools receiving vouchers last year were religious. The reporting shed light on why secular schools seldom participate and why voucher-funded schools in Indiana have stricter testing requirements than any other state. It also revealed how state policy had quietly prevented an explosion of new voucher-funded schools, and how lawmakers were changing the rules to make it easier for new private schools to get state money.
- Center stage
Indiana is in the spotlight as President Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, pursues an agenda that heavily promotes school choice. Since her confirmation, she has given the Hoosier state a great deal of attention, praising the state’s charter and voucher programs and touting several Indianapolis schools as models for the country. Among them were a struggling neighborhood school that was taken over by a community partnership, a Christian school dedicated to integration, and a charter school for students recovering from drug addiction.
She also made three visits. In May, she stopped by the annual conference of the American Federation for Children, an advocacy group she had led, in Indianapolis to promise an “ambitious expansion of school choice.” She returned again to highlight career and technical education at the national convention of FFA, which used to be known as Future Farmers of America. And she traversed the state as part of a national school tour. But it’s an open question whether the Indiana policies that DeVos has praised will be embraced nationally.