Lawmakers met some demands from teachers this legislative session, easing up on the state’s tough approach to accountability. But teachers’ biggest demand — better pay — was largely avoided, and lawmakers shrunk away from putting restrictions on virtual schools following an alleged $86 million fraud.
A handful of proposals aimed at raising teacher pay were tossed out by lawmakers. Instead, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb pledged to free up $50 million for schools in 2021 and will consider other recommendations that are expected this spring from a teacher pay committee.
But lawmakers quickly passed a two-year measure to hold schools and teachers harmless (SB 2) for low scores on the new state standardized test, ILEARN. And, in a stark reversal for the Republican supermajority, lawmakers showed overwhelming support for no longer requiring test scores to be a significant part of teacher evaluations (HB 1002).
More than a dozen education-related bills were passed this year before the short session ended on Wednesday, including some that drew controversy. Here’s what you should know:
The Indiana Department of Education faces a new responsibility to make sure all schools are complying with student count rules. Lawmakers passed a bill (HB 1066) requiring the department to report by December the number of students who are listed as enrolled this school year, but did not take the state test or complete a course.
The move comes as two virtual charter schools are under state and federal investigation for an alleged $86 million enrollment inflation and misspending. The report would be modeled on how the Daleville district found enrollment discrepancies at Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy.
The bill also expands the definition of a “governmental entity” to include charter schools, which means those schools will be bound to existing conflict-of-interest laws.
Lawmakers rejected more direct approaches to cracking down on virtual charter schools, stripping a proposal that sought to define online attendance and add consequences for students and schools when those enrolled don’t spend enough time on schoolwork or take standardized tests. They also removed language that explicitly said the department can withhold funding or revoke a school’s charter if irregularities are found in its enrollment data.
Lawmakers opened the door for charter schools to receive taxpayer money through school referendums. The last-minute addition to a catch-all tax bill (HB 1065) allows public schools to share money raised for operations or safety improvements with charter schools in its boundaries, excluding virtual charter schools.
It was a controversial move that spurred two hours of back and forth among lawmakers and resulted in a close vote. Supporters said the provision could help schools pass referendums if children in charter schools would also benefit from the tax increase. Schools can request that a charter school prove its financial need before agreeing to share the funds.
But the language caused concern over whether charters would campaign against referendums if schools didn’t agree. Some education advocates also worried the optional statute would later become a requirement.
“I think this is a very dangerous and very inadequately thought-out concept,” Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, said Monday. “It ties up the charter schools, it ties up the regular schools, it takes property taxes and gives it to people who are not controlled through the property tax system and the school districts. That is remarkable.”
Lawmakers also considered limiting when schools could run a referendum to November general elections, which some feared would lower the chances of future measures passing. The idea, which was quietly added to an election bill (HB 1222), has come up at the statehouse before. After receiving pushback from education advocates, the proposal was later removed.
Teacher evaluations and training
Lawmakers passed a bill (SB 319) to make it optional for teachers to do an unpaid externship in order to renew their license, responding to demands from teachers.
They also opened up the regulations for which schools can request a waiver, saying it will encourage creativity and ease the burden of some non-educational training for teachers. The bill (HB 1003) excludes some areas, which can’t be waived, including collective bargaining, American history, sexual education, accountability, testing and graduation requirements.
“Half of the code and rulemaking … would be eligible for waivers,” said Rep. Jack Jordan, R-Bremen, who authored the bill. Waivers, he said, would give schools “freedom in this 21st century so they can have the creativity to help students to succeed with this evolving job market.”
At the same time, lawmakers added a requirement (HB 1283) that teacher preparation programs include curriculum about dealing with trauma.
High school equivalency pilot
Lawmakers created a pilot program for three districts where seniors who are severely behind on credits work to pass a high school equivalency exam and take steps toward career training. The idea (SB 398) drew concern in part because it initially would have allowed those students, who don’t receive a diploma, to be counted as graduates. Currently, students who leave high school to earn their equivalency are considered dropouts.
Lawmakers walked back the pilot so its students can’t be counted as graduates. But in a last-minute tweak, lawmakers added that they won’t count against the school as dropouts, either. It’s a way to incentivize Washington Township, Warren Township, and Richmond districts to participate, said Senate education committee chair Jeff Raatz. The pilot is set to expire after three years.
“Being that it’s a pilot program, it’s essentially an agreement between some of us to make sure it is not taken advantage of in any way shape or form,” Raatz said.
Administrators are required to test school’s drinking water for lead before 2023 if they haven’t already done so within the past four years. The bill (HB 1265) was expanded statewide and passed after an internal local health department report revealed how much lead was found in drinking water in Indianapolis schools. Some schools had levels as high as 182 times the federal bar, but many parents weren’t notified until two years later.
The new law will require schools to take corrective action if levels are above the federal guideline, but does not require schools to publicly report the test results. It also demands that school drinking water in Lake County, where contamination from a lead plant has raised concerns, be tested at least once every two years beginning in 2023.
Schools are now required to provide students in grades 6-12 who have disabilities the same reading accommodations on the state’s standardized test, ILEARN, that they are given every day in class. They will also be required to let the parents of students with disabilities know if their child is eligible to opt out of the test.
The bill (SB 346) initially aimed to require the state to give all students who use a text-to-speech accommodation in class the same option throughout the exam. But it was narrowed after education officials argued that giving younger students the tool on reading comprehension questions would not accurately measure their understanding.
Moving forward, the bill also requires that the State Board of Education has one member with a background in special education, and the state’s education department will be required to get approval from the state board of education before offering schools advice on accommodations.
The state is also tasked with creating a plan by October to inform former high school students who received a certificate of completion instead of a diploma, or who have a disability, about vocational training opportunities and how they can earn their high school equivalency. The bill (HB 1341) aims in part to lower the unemployment rate for people with disabilities.
Money for Gary schools
Gary Schools has new money available for building repairs and demolition after the state approved rerouting more than $20 million over the next four and a half years. Rather than making loan repayments to the state, the bill (HB 1065) allows the takeover district to put its $500,000 monthly payments into a school improvement fund.
Gary currently has more than 30 abandoned school buildings sitting empty around the city. Earlier this year, the district and state oversight board faced scrutiny over building conditions. Students were taking classes in career center garages after burst pipes caused their building to close.