It wouldn’t be Indiana politics without heated debates over education, and, reliably, the General Assembly delivered.
Some of the longest discussions this year focused on expanding the state’s On My Way Pre-K pilot and replacing ISTEP. Particularly contentious were proposals for the state’s education leader to be appointed instead of elected, and for the state to take over the struggling Muncie and Gary school districts.
And, by golly, the legislature finally took some action on the perennial topic of teaching cursive writing.
Now it’s up to Gov. Eric Holcomb to give final consideration to whether the measures will become laws.
Here’s the breakdown of education policies that lawmakers passed by the end of the session Saturday — and how they could affect teachers and students around the state.
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The state will expand its prekindergarten pilot program for low-income students to 15 counties, up from the initial five counties, and provide an additional $9 million for those adorable 4-year-olds sporting backpacks. Another $1 million will go toward a new at-home, online program that aims to extend pre-K to rural counties that may not have high-quality providers. Students who attend pre-K at private, voucher-eligible schools also will automatically qualify for a school voucher to continue their education at that school.
Didn’t we just rewrite the state’s standardized test? Yes. But as they say, what has been will be again, and what has been done will be done again. Lawmakers repealed ISTEP last year, and this year they set parameters for the new test for 2019, dubbed ILEARN. Much of what the test looks like will be left up to the State Board of Education to hash out. While there’s room for some personalization to Indiana’s standards, there’s also room for using a national test that will allow Indiana to compare test results with other states. Testing and graduation requirements for high school students will change, too. And, notably, school districts will have more discretion in how ISTEP results factor into teacher evaluations next year.
With financial problems plaguing the Gary and Muncie school districts, the state will intervene, taking over the districts and turning over operations to an emergency manager. It’s a controversial strategy on a larger scale than when the state took over five struggling schools in 2011, including four in Indianapolis.
It’s clear school choice is popular, but which schools are families choosing over public options? The state will now track which voucher school, out-of-district public school or charter school that students are choosing over their assigned public school districts. Holcomb has already signed this bill into law.
The budget planned for slight increases in school vouchers, which use public dollars to help low-income families cover the cost of private school tuition. By 2019, the state expects to serve 38,000 students through vouchers, at an estimated cost of $167 million. The budget also raises the tax credit cap for donations for private school scholarships to $12.5 million next year and $14 million in 2019, up from this year’s $9.5 million cap.
In addition, lawmakers broadened private school eligibility for voucher funds, eliminating a one-year waiting period so schools can receive vouchers in their first year of operation. Low-performing private schools will also be able to appeal to the State Board of Education to continue to take new voucher students. But lawmakers ditched an effort to require more financial transparency from private schools receiving vouchers.
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A new program extends school choice by allowing students to take classes offered by outside providers, including online courses, paid for by public school districts. It aims to give students access to classes that their schools may not offer. Holcomb has already signed this bill into law.
The state budgeted $11 million for new charter schools next year, and twice that amount in 2019. Also, virtual schools will be required to adopt a student engagement policy to outline rules for withdrawing or expelling students who regularly don’t log into classes.
After an ugly flap last year, lawmakers sought to equalize merit-based teacher pay raises. “Teacher appreciation” will no longer be tied to school performance, with funds instead distributed based on the size of the school. The state allocated slightly less money for raises, however — $30 million annually for the next two years, as opposed to the previous biennium’s $70 million.
Lawmakers poked holes in future golden parachutes for superintendents who are bought out of their contracts. Buyouts will be capped at one year’s salary or $250,000, whichever is less. The cap comes after big payouts for former Wayne Township Metropolitan School District Superintendent Terry Thompson, who tried to collect a $1 million retirement package when he left in 2010, and former Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White, who was given more than $600,000 to leave in 2013.
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Remember those bitter fights between former Gov. Mike Pence and former state schools chief Glenda Ritz over education policy? Their tense relationship pushed lawmakers to reduce the amount of side-eye by making the state’s education leader a position appointed by the governor. Indiana’s state superintendent of public instruction has been an elected position for 166 years, but lawmakers have been talking about the change for decades. It takes effect in 2024, after the current state schools chief, Jennifer McCormick, can have her shot at re-election.
Public and private schools are required to be more diligent with background checks of school employees after a USA Today Network and IndyStar investigation revealed holes in the state’s screening system sometimes allowed sexual predators and other problematic instructors into the classroom. Schools must check the criminal history within 30 days of any applicant who will have direct contact with children. They must also check within 60 days whether the applicant has been reported for child abuse or neglect, and whether the applicant has had a teaching license suspended or revoked in another state. Checks must be conducted every five years, instead of just upon hiring, and the state also seeks to strengthen cross-checking to revoke licenses of educators convicted of certain sexual misconduct, drug or violent crimes.
New specific protections will shield students from being punished for their religious expression in public schools. Schools must allow students to pray, express their religious beliefs in assignments, participate in religious clubs or wear religious garb.
Schools will be required to offer electives on Indiana studies and the study of racial and ethnic groups. They can also offer an elective on world religions, as long as the class remains neutral on religion.
Just how necessary is it to teach kids these days to write in cursive? Let’s ask the educators! The Indiana Department of Education will survey educators across the state on their thoughts about the possibility of mandatory instruction of cursive writing.
Call IndyStar reporter Stephanie Wang at (317) 444-6184. Follow her on Twitter: @stephaniewang.
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