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Education wasn’t supposed to be a big deal for Indiana lawmakers in 2017, but major changes are on the horizon

Shaina Cavazos

Indiana’s 2017 legislative session might have began with a focus on roads and transportation, but lawmakers have still devoted a lot of time to a variety of education debates that could wind up making big changes for the state’s schools.

In just a week, Indiana lawmakers are expected to wrap this year’s legislative session. Until then, both sides are debating more controversial bills and putting final touches on others before they are sent to Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Many of these proposals will see further debate over the next week as they go through conference committee, when House and Senate lawmakers come together to reach compromises. Once a compromise is reached, bills will go back up for final votes in the House and Senate. Here’s where everything stands now.

Tying teacher evaluations to tests still troubles Democrats, educators

House Bill 1003, which proposes a plan for a system of tests to replace ISTEP that would be known as “ILEARN,” was up for debate in conference committee on Wednesday.

While the House version of the bill primarily reflected recommendations from a state panel charged with considering how to change the exams, the Senate version was more prescriptive, including suggestions from state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick to use a national college entrance test as the high school graduation exam.

The fact that neither bill version had a provision to remove test scores from teacher evaluations troubled a number of Democrats on the committee and educators who testified.

“Incorporating data based on a test that even the state legislature removed — you put us in a really difficult position when you required us to implement that,” said Scot Croner, superintendent in Blackford County.

Future of online program uncertain as preschool debate continues

Lawmakers also gathered Wednesday to wade through the many proposals on the table regarding Indiana’s preschool program in House Bill 1004, which it its current form would allow all of the state’s 92 counties to participate.

The original House plan expanded the program only up to 10 counties.

During the committee meeting, Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, reminded lawmakers that the state would only include suggested funding levels in the budget bill, not the preschool one — and the budget won’t be finalized likely until late next week. But money still factored into the conversation, with local and state advocates testifying and requesting as much funding as possible, particularly given the optimism around the state’s recent revenue report.

Behning also asked many of the educators and preschool advocates how they felt about a provision in the bill that would allocate $1 million per year for a Utah-based online preschool program called “Upstart,” which says it can prepare kids for kindergarten in 15 minutes per day, five days a week.

Read: How a computer program designed for home-based preschool in Utah could get a piece of Indiana’s education budget

Caryl Auslander, with the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, summed up many of the comments made about the online program:

“We’re not necessarily against Upstart, but we’re really supportive of making sure the limited dollars we have to spend are spent on high-quality programs going forward,” she said.

Lawmakers and those from the public who testified were also split on whether the final proposal should include controversial language that would expand the state’s voucher program to children who receive a preschool grant.

“We believe that language should have been struck,” Joel Hand, with the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, said Wednesday. “We believe that intertwining the voucher program with the preschool debate is really inappropriate.”

State superintendent bill stalls after Senate squabble

At this point, lawmakers have not explicitly indicated they have a problem with the Senate version of House Bill 1005, a move which must be made before the bill can go to a conference committee for further debate.

The proposal would allow Gov. Eric Holcomb, and future state executives, to choose Indiana’s state superintendent, rather than let voters pick in an election. An original version of the House bill proposed starting in 2021, meaning current state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick would serve just one term alongside Gov. Eric Holcomb.

The current version — after some twists and turns in the Senate — now has the appointment beginning in 2025, which means Holcomb wouldn’t be around to make the pick.

But the hold-up isn’t necessarily unusual, House Republican spokeswoman Erin Reece said.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, the bill’s author, told reporters yesterday that he’s still discussing the bill with his caucus and working on other agenda items.

The bill will likely see heavy debate as the Senate and House work out a final version, particularly regarding when the new appointment would begin.

Charter- and voucher-related proposals could affect failing virtual and private schools

Two complicated omnibus bills dealing with charter schools and vouchers will head into their final rounds of negotiations on Monday, and another that creates a voucher-like program to let kids take classes outside their public schools is headed to the governor.

The first omnibus bill, House Bill 1382, would make changes to how the Indiana State Board of Education handles authorizers who want to renew charters for schools that have failed for four years in a row, among numerous other provisions. It also would require virtual schools to adopt “student engagement” policies, which would allow them to remove students showing low participation and poor attendance.

In the Senate, the bill was amended to include changes to how charter school teachers can be licensed. At charter schools, current Indiana law says that 90 percent of teachers must hold a state teaching license, or be in the process of pursuing one. One proposal in the bill would loosen restrictions on which state permits count as full-fledged licenses and give more discretion to the state board to make those decisions.

The second, House Bill 1384, would require the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a school’s rate of student turnover from year to year when it assigns A-F accountability grades, which could have the most impact on both urban schools and virtual schools, whose grades tend to slip when students move in and out throughout a given school year.

The state board would also be tasked with determining a definition for “high-mobility” schools and the Indiana Department of Education would be required to publish a yearly report on the schools’ performance.

The bill also includes two proposals regarding private schools and vouchers. One would allow schools to appeal D or F grades that prohibit them from accepting new voucher students. Another would allow schools to become accredited more quickly, and thus accept voucher students sooner.

The voucher-like program that would be created by House Bill 1007 is known more widely as a “course access” program, and it could represent one way Indiana’s school choice strategy is broadening. Under the program as outlined in the bill, students could use public dollars to pay for outside schooling — one course at a time. Then, those course providers would get a cut of a school or district’s state funding.

The bill passed the House and was amended in committee to allow public school districts to deny students’ requests to enroll in outside courses if those courses are not actually required for graduation, would put a student above a full courseload of credits or are “logistically infeasible.”

School funding plans still coming into focus

Underlying many of the pending education bills is the debate over the state’s next two-year budget, which likely won’t be finalized until late next week.

The Senate proposal calls for raising education funding by $358 million, or 3.25 percent, over the next two years, while the House proposed a smaller $273 million, 2.8 percent funding increase for education last month. However, the House plan would include higher per-student funding.

Much of the Senate increase appears to come from revived provisions for teacher bonuses and boosts to the formula that adds dollars for districts with many poor students.

You can find more on the Senate education funding plan here, and House plan here.

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