goals

McCormick’s wishlist for the Indiana legislature: diploma fixes and mandatory kindergarten

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick speaks during a 2016 campaign event.

Indiana schools chief Jennifer McCormick laid out her wishlist for the upcoming year on Tuesday, listing some priorities ahead of the next legislative session that will require the support of the governor and lawmakers.

While a few of McCormick’s 18 goals overlap with ones set by Gov. Eric Holcomb and other advocates, many of them focus on education policy issues that have received far less attention from the state as it gears up for the January legislative session.

Holcomb’s legislative agenda centered around workforce training and helping Hoosiers deal with the current opioid crisis. McCormick focused on three main areas: student learning, improving schools and supporting districts.

“Bottom line for students and for teachers,” McCormick said at a press conference, is that these priorities “show commitment to doing what’s best for students. It also gives opportunities for students. It also sends a message that says that we are here to support the field.”

The list, she said, portrays  “a clear picture of who we are as a department.”

Her plans take up issues that have long been debated in the General Assembly, such as when children should begin school. They also address newer sources of frustration for schools, such as transitioning to yet another state test and trying to manage the effects of new federal rules that could cause graduation rates to plummet for many schools.

It’s not clear how much legislative or state board of education support exists for her plans. During her campaign, McCormick touted her ability to cooperate and work with other state officials, striking a stark contrast to her challenger, Glenda Ritz, who frequently clashed with the state’s Republican majority.

But while McCormick, also a Republican, has avoided some of the public flare-ups that vexed Ritz, her policies have often deviated from those of her party, particularly concerning state-funded vouchers for private school and charter schools. Those differences could affect her ability to have the legislature take up her agenda next year.

McCormick’s plan includes efforts to:

  • Require students to attend school by age 5.  The current compulsory schooling age in Indiana is 7.
  • Unify the state’s four diplomas into one.
  • Appeal to the federal government on the issue of graduation requirements to head off plummeting graduation rates.
  • Carry out Indiana’s new system for struggling schools.
  • Seek more flexibility in teacher licensing to allow current teachers to teach more subjects and prospective teachers to skirt red tape.
  • Provide more training for teachers on the new ILEARN test and potential graduation pathways plans.
  • Develop options for teacher leadership.
  • Find more ways to support schools and districts that are struggling financially.

Details on potential costs and timelines for many of her goals were not provided.

Some priorities cannot move forward without the legislature’s support. For example, lowering  the required school age to 5 would require legislation. Such a bill is regularly introduced in the Indiana General Assembly. While it has repeatedly stalled, McCormick said there is legislative support for it.

“We can still say — one of 26 states that can say — you don’t have to come to us until you’re 7,” she said. “That has created problems for some of our at-risk students … there is too much on the line academically.”

Lawmakers would also likely have to sign off on changes to Indiana’s diplomas, which are being scrutinized by a state committee that is considering overhauling graduation requirements to ensure students are prepared for life after high school.

McCormick has not supported the committee’s enthusiasm for multiple graduation pathways, telling the members that she believes having a single diploma could still meet the needs of students of different ability levels. She thinks a diploma is much better suited to addressing students’ postsecondary plans than the complicated “graduation pathways” proposal being considered.

“We love the idea of pathways, we embrace many of the ideas that are found within those plans, but we think a better vehicle for that would be diplomas,” McCormick said. “We think that is a natural pathway vs. what is coming out of the graduation pathways panel.”

McCormick acknowledged that the governor and the legislature are more focused on producing a better prepared workforce in Indiana. They also must address a recent school funding shortfall by adjusting the state budget.

“I think educators have become a little fatigued in the area of legislative mandates,” McCormick said. “We have plenty to do, but it is almost a relief to see a little bit of calm upstairs in the General Assembly.”

Read more about McCormick’s 2018 priorities here.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

These are the 13 education bills poised to become law in Indiana in 2018

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
House Speaker Brian Bosma talks with Democrats shortly before the session adjourned without passing several bills.

Despite a chaotic end to this year’s legislative session, lawmakers managed to push through several education bills that could bring changes for teachers, students and schools.

And it’s not quite over either.

Lawmakers ran out of time before their midnight deadline last week, leaving behind several major bills, including a bill that would expand state takeover in Gary and Muncie school districts. On Monday, Gov. Eric Holcomb announced he’d be calling for a special session so they could revisit that issue and others.

In non-budget year, it can be hard to make significant change because money is generally not available to fund new programs or increase existing ones. This year, the biggest education issue lawmakers passed was a bill to make up an unexpected shortfall in school funding.

Below is a summary of education bills that passed this session, which next head to Holcomb, where he can decide whether to sign them into law. You can find the status of all the bills introduced this year here, and Chalkbeat’s 2018 legislative coverage here.

Graduation and workforce

Senate Bill 50 establishes the governor’s workforce cabinet, which would oversee job training efforts across the state. The cabinet would create a “career navigation and coaching system,” which all Indiana high schools would be required to participate in. State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick would be a cabinet member.

House Bill 1426 would combine Indiana’s four diplomas into a single diploma with four “designations” that mirror current diploma tracks. In addition, it would change rules for getting a graduation waiver and create an “alternate diploma” for students with severe special needs.The bill would also allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider alternatives to Algebra 2 as a graduation requirement. It makes several changes to state tests, replacing the state high school exam with a national college-entrance exam and eliminating the requirement that schools give the Accuplacer remediation test. The final version of the bill also changes the timing of testing from earlier version. Students wouldn’t begin the new graduation pathways plan until 2021, so the same deadline was applied to switching to a college entrance exam for state accountability. Until then, state education officials will have to decide what annual test high schoolers take when students in grades 3-8 switch to the new ILEARN test next year.

Finance

House Bill 1001 would close the gap in school funding that resulted from miscalculations in the number of students attending public schools. The bills would let the state transfer up to $25 million this year and up to $75 million next year from a reserve fund to the state general fund, where it could then be distributed to districts. The bill also calls for a study of virtual education programs within school districts.

Instruction

Senate Bill 172 would require public schools to offer computer science classes as an elective in high schools, as well as a part of the science curriculum for all K-12 students, by 2021. The bill also sets up a grant program to help pay for teacher training in computer science.

Senate Bill 297 would require schools to include “employability skills,” also known as “soft skills,” in their curriculums. The idea for the bill came from David Freitas, a member of the state board of education.

Senate Bill 65 would require school districts to let parents examine any instructional materials dealing with sex education. It would also require schools to send out consent forms for sex ed classes, where parents could then opt students out of the class. If they do not, the students would still receive instruction.

House Bill 1399 would require the state board to create elementary teacher licenses in math and science. It would also require the state education department to create an incentive program to reward teachers who earn the content area licenses.

Senate Bill 387 would allow districts to pay teachers different amounts and give special education and science teachers extra stipends in an effort to fill jobs. A previous measure that would let districts hire up to 10 percent of unlicensed teachers has been added and removed several times this year, and was killed for good in conference committee. The bill also makes changes to the state’s career specialist permit. Career specialists would have to pass an exam showing they understand how students learn and the practice of teaching, in addition to content exams. The bill also removes a provision from the current version of the permit that says a career specialist must have a bachelor’s degree in the area they wish to teach in.

Miscellaneous

House Bill 1420, among several other measures, would not let a student who has been expelled from a virtual charter school for non-attendance re-enroll in that same school during the same school year.

House Bill 1421 would ask the state education department to develop a school discipline model that reduces suspensions and expulsions, especially among students of color. It also requires the department to provide guidance and information to districts, beginning in 2019, that want to use that model. It encourages the legislative council to study positive student discipline and restorative justice and asks the education department to survey districts on those practices.

House Bill 1398 would allow a group of charter schools and districts to form a “coalition” to pursue innovative academic strategies. Coalition members could also waive certain state requirements, such as the requirement that students pass Algebra 2 to graduate.

Senate Bill 217 would require districts and charter schools to screen students for dyslexia and by 2019, to employ at least one reading specialist trained in dyslexia, among other provisions.

House Bill 1314 would set up data sharing between the state’s education and child services departments. It would also require that the Indiana State Board of Education release an annual report about foster and homeless youth education.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

State takeover plans for Gary and Muncie could be revived as Indiana lawmakers return in May

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Gov. Eric Holcomb addressed reporters Monday. He's asking lawmakers to return for a special session in May.

Lawmakers will return to the Statehouse this May after an unusual summons Monday from Gov. Eric Holcomb, and it’s possible they could revisit a controversial plan to expand state takeover of the Gary and Muncie school districts.

But Holcomb said the takeover plan should not be pushed through during a special session and should be acted upon next year. It’s been more than a decade since lawmakers held a special session in a non-budget year.

“I would prefer to wait,” Holcomb said. “I don’t believe that it rises to the level of urgency to be dealt with right now.”

The regular legislative session ended in chaos last week, with lawmakers leaving this and several other important bills unresolved when the clock ran out.

Republican lawmakers have been largely supportive of the takeover plan, and so they could revive the issue despite Holcomb’s stance. Holcomb said discussions would happen this week over what issues could be addressed during the special session.

House Bill 1315 sparked heated debate right up until the final minutes of the 2018 legislative session. The bill would have given control of Muncie schools to Ball State University and stripped power from the Gary school board. Another part of the bill would have developed an early warning system to identify districts in financial trouble.

On Thursday, House Speaker Brian Bosma said the bill was one of the important issues left on the table when the legislature had to adjourn.

But Senate President David Long also noted that the bill has been massively unpopular in some circles — Democrats were strongly opposed to it, as were teachers unions and some educators and community members.

Both Republican leaders said in statements Monday that they supported the governor’s special session request. But John Zody, the Indiana Democratic Party chairman, derided the move as wasteful and a reflection of lawmakers’ inability to finish their work on time.

“Republican leadership incompetently steered session into a wall on the last lap,” Zody said in a statement. “Now they’re asking taxpayers to foot the bill for another shot at passing their do-nothing agenda.”

Holcomb said his biggest priorities during the special session would be getting a $12 million loan from the state’s Common School Fund to Muncie schools to deal with financial difficulties stemming from declining enrollment and mismanagement of a bond issue. That loan was originally a provision in the House bill.

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said Monday morning that she also would support action to get Muncie schools the money they were promised. McCormick also said the early warning system could be helpful to prevent these situations in the future.

“We want Muncie to be successful,” McCormick said, adding that anything the state can do to be proactive “and get people help so we’re not dealing with more Muncies and Garys” is a good thing.

The special session could come with a steep price tag for Indiana taxpayers. Micah Vincent, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said early estimates for calling lawmakers back into session could be about $30,000 per day. But that cost “is dwarfed by the cost of inaction,” Holcomb said. It’s unclear how long the special session could last.

The governor also said he wanted to prioritize school safety legislation, another measure that didn’t get final votes before time ran out. He is calling for lawmakers to direct $10 million over the next two years to the state’s Secured School Fund. The money would allow districts to request dollars for new and improved school safety equipment and building improvements.

His plan comes in the wake of a shooting in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students and faculty members were killed last month.

The shooting also sparked activism across the country, with thousands of students protesting against gun violence in schools and calling for stricter gun regulations. Last Wednesday, many Hoosier students joined the national movement by walking out of school.