Future of Schools

Here are the 29 education bills that passed the 2015 Indiana legislature

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

The work of Indiana lawmakers this year probably won’t be remembered primarily for its effect on schools — given the national debate that erupted over “religious freedom” — but in fact they made a series of changes to the way the state manages schools, tests students and pays for education.

Back in December, Gov. Mike Pence called for 2015 to be an “education session” for the legislature. In the end, more education bills died than were passed, and some of Pence’s ideas were revised more than he probably preferred. But some schools will come away from 2015 with more money (and others with less), students will see shorter state tests, struggling schools could find themselves facing state takeover sooner and the Indiana State Board of Education will see a major overhaul.

Here are the 29 education bills that passed the Indiana legislature in 2015:

Testing changes

  • Shorten the test. Senate Bill 62 was rewritten and sped through the legislature to shorten ISTEP by at least three hours before students started taking the test in February. Pence signed it into law almost immediately.
  • Required remediation. House Bill 1637 makes changes to a law that requires students who score poorly on state tests to be identified for extra help.
  • Study replacing ISTEP. Senate Bill 566 originally would have replaced ISTEP with a national test, but after a long debate lawmakers decided to study that idea over the summer instead. It also makes some changes to laws related to teachers unions and teacher evaluation and creates a new avenue for those with college majors in science, technology, engineering or math to become teachers.

School funding

  • Funding formula. House Bill 1001, the state budget, included big changes in school funding. Wealthy, fast-growing suburban districts benefited more than districts with large numbers of poor children. The budget also included more money for charter schools and vouchers, added support for English language learning programs and a $100 tax credit for teachers who spend their own money on school supplies.
  • School capital projects. Senate Bill 476 makes changes to the way the tax rate is calculated for school capital funds.

Indiana State Board of Education

State takeover

  • School A-to-F grades. House Bill 1638, was originally about “transformation zones,” but it was rewritten to speed up the timeline by which a failing school can be taken over by the state to four straight years of F grades from six years.

Teachers

  • Innovation school networks. House Bill 1009 was once the “freedom to teach” bill, which would have made big changes to rules surrounding teachers unions. Instead, the bill was rewritten to expand the “innovation school network” idea, which previously applied only to Indianapolis Public Schools, to allow more school districts to partner with outside groups, such as charter school networks. The bill also includes a “career pathways” pilot program, which IPS had lobbied for. The district is working on ideas to give extra pay to teachers who take on leadership roles.
  • Student teaching. House Bill 1188 aims to ensure that student teachers are assigned only to be mentored by teachers who are rated effective or highly effective.
  • Union-related rules. House Bill 1483 makes mostly small changes to union-related rules, such as requirements for teachers to make up training if it is missed because of a snow day and allowances for non-union employees to serve on district committees. But also added to this bill were several concepts from other bills. Among them, the bill would remove a requirement that bus monitors have the same visual strength as drivers.
  • Union representation. Senate Bill 538 gives more rights to professional organizations that are not unions to serve teachers as long as they are not primarily commercial companies, but it is less far-reaching than the original “freedom to teach” concept that started out as House Bill 1009. It also calls for a yearly “teacher bill of rights” to be distributed to teachers. The bill originally would have required all school districts to hold new elections to allow teachers to decide if they wanted to keep their union representatives, but that section was dropped after an amendment to the bill was added in committee. The bill can still trigger new elections to affirm union representation in some cases.

School choice

Students and schools

  • Student Discipline. House Bill 1635 originally was about dual language immersion programs, but that concept was moved to Senate Bill 267. Instead, this bill was retooled to support schools that want to try new ideas to improve school climate and discipline. Schools can apply for grants for such programs, or for teacher training. For Marion County schools, the bill requires they report school suspension and expulsions broken down by race, gender, family income and for students in special education, making for easier study of trends. The bill also requires rural school districts to provide busing to charter schools if they do the same for private schools and allows for school building transfers from townships to consolidated schools.
  • High school diplomas. House Bill 1194 calls for study of whether Indiana should change diploma types to ensure they accommodate students in special education and career and technical programs.
  • Safety drills. House Bill 1414 requires schools to hold more safety drills.
  • DeregulationSenate Bill 500 was designed to reduce regulations on schools. But it was scaled back to remove sections on student health care, school safety and worker safety reporting tax issues and more. The final bill removes a series of outdated state laws from the books and makes other non-controversial changes to state rules.
  • Foreign language learning. Senate Bill 267 ended up also incorporating concepts from House Bill 1635 to create a pilot to establish programs that would allow students to learn half the day in a foreign language, such as Chinese, Spanish or French. Plus it maintained its original language, which awards a special certificate to students who can demonstrate they are proficient in a second language.
  • Speed limits in school zones. Senate Bill 35 reduces the allowable speed in school zones.
  • Internet posting of information. Senate Bill 369 requires schools to post data on the Internet.
  • Recreational facility immunity. House Bill 1045 protects school-run recreational facilities from lawsuits.
  • Background checks. House Bill 1068 further defines what is required for a school background check.

Colleges

  • College financial assistance. House Bill 1333 makes changes to eligibility for a National Guard scholarship extension.
  • Medical schools. Senate Bill 123 is a technical bill altering the formal names of some university medical schools.
  •  Scholarships and grants. Senate Bill 509 would allow the Commission on Higher Education to ask the state to transfer money among scholarship and grant funds to meet the needs of students.
  •  Veteran tuition discounts. Senate Bill 434 allows nonresident veterans serving in the Indiana National Guard to pay discounted in-state tuition when they attend state colleges.
  • Student loans. House Bill 1042 aims to inform college students about their loan costs.

 Bills that died

More than 30 education-related bills were introduced and discussed in committees but ultimately failed to pass. Some of these ideas were added to other bills but most simply died:

  • Tax credits for teachers. House Bill 1005 would have given teachers a $200 tax credit for money they spend out of their own pockets for classroom supplies. Instead, a credit of up to $100 was included in the state budget.
  • Investigations of state test cheating. House Bill 1639 would have asked the Indiana Department of Education to work with the state board to craft procedures to investigate unusual ISTEP results.
  • Student disabilities and teacher licensing. House Bill 1437 would have required teachers demonstrate knowledge of teaching strategies for helping disabled children.
  • School discipline. House Bill 1640 would have required schools to follow best practices to ensure fairness in discipline, and Senate Bill 443 would have made grants to schools that want to reduce suspension and expulsion and passed the Senate. Instead, steps to address school discipline were included in House Bill 1009.
  •  Gary school board. House Bill 1514 would have reduced the size of the school board in Gary and given the city the authority to appoint some members. The state budget included some specific plans for alerting the oversight of Gary schools.
  • STEM pathway network. House Bill 1222 would have set aside state funds to support the creation of STEM programs.
  • Return and complete grants. House Bill 1262 would have offered grants for students who completed some college but did not finish to return and seek degrees.
  • GAAP accounting. House Bill 1579 would have required school districts to convert to a Generally Accepted Accounting Principles system for managing finances. The possible costs of converting raised concerns.
  • Principal endorsement program. House Bill 1641 would have created a principal endorsement program at Western Governors University. The university asked for more time to consider the program.
  • School counseling. Senate Bill 277 would have required a guidance counselor in every Indiana school.
  • Donations to education foundations. Senate Bill 187 would have let school districts donate funds to nonprofit charity foundations or endowment corporations if donations were matched by a private donor.
  • College and career counseling. Senate Bill 271 would have established a grant to help school counselors obtain certificates to better help them prepare students for college and jobs after high school.
  • Health and sex education. Senate Bill 497 would have had the Indiana Department of Education and the state department of health to work together to develop updated health and wellness standards and then report back to the legislature on those findings.
  •  School nutrition. Senate Bill 526 would have asked the Department of Education work with school districts to ensure they are complying with federal guidelines and policies about student nutrition.
  • Required physical exams for athletic association. Senate Bill 119 proposed to change when students had to get physical exams from doctors to within two weeks of the students’ birthdays, rather than at other times during the year. State school and medical officials said the change would create hardships for students and families.
  • Bus Aides. Senate Bill 339 would make a fix to current law so that bus monitors, who mind children but do not drive, are not required to meet the same requirements as the drivers for having strong eyesight. This concept ended up in House Bill 1483.
  • Accelerated degree program. House Bill 1231 would have created college scholarships for students who participate in an accelerated degree program.
  • Cursive writing. Senate Bill 130 would have required all public and private elementary schools teach cursive writing, which was dropped as a requirement by the Indiana Department of Education in 2011.
  • “Merry Christmas” bill. Senate Bill 233 would have added language to current law to allow schools to have displays related to winter holidays, both religious and secular.
  • Ethnic history. Senate Bill 495 would have required elementary and high schools to teach about ethnic minority groups in their social studies curriculum.
  • STEM dual-credit pilot program. Senate Bill 259 would have created a pilot program to allow students to take classes toward an associate’s degree in science, technology, engineering or math by the time they graduate high school. This idea instead became part of Senate Bill 566.
  • School climate grants. Senate Bill 443 would prevent schools from suspending or expelling students based solely on attendance. It also provides grant money for schools to adopt positive, “evidence-based” discipline approaches and training for teachers and staff. The concept ended up in House Bill 1635.

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.