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.

Looking to the future

Why this standalone Denver charter school is considering joining forces with a network

PHOTO: Courtesy Roots Elementary
A student at Roots Elementary in Denver.

A tiny charter school in northeast Denver faces a big decision after the departure of its founder.

Roots Elementary is searching for a new leader who can continue improving upon the school’s shaky academic start. But the standalone charter is also considering an unusual alternative: canceling its search and becoming part of the Rocky Mountain Prep charter network, which has stellar test scores and experience absorbing other schools.

Which route the school takes will largely depend on feedback from students’ families, said Eric Sondermann, the chair of the Roots board of directors. Families first heard about the Rocky Mountain Prep option last month, and many are still weighing the pros and cons. But TaHana McClinton, whose daughter will be in fourth grade at Roots this fall, sees mostly positives.

“From what I’m hearing, they’re the best,” McClinton said of Rocky Mountain Prep. “They have the best teachers and their curriculum is really good. I really do think it’ll be a wonderful merger.”

The Roots board is likely to vote in the fall on its path forward, Sondermann said. If it chooses Rocky Mountain Prep, the process of joining the network would probably take a year or two.

Roots’ situation highlights the challenges of going it alone as a single-site charter. The potential merger is also illustrative of an expansion strategy that, in the face of declining enrollment and scarce real estate in Denver, is becoming one of the only viable options for charter networks.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, which means they don’t benefit from the same centralized support as traditional district-run schools. It can be difficult for standalone charters to find a leader with expertise in academics as well as the business of running a school.

And money is often tight, in part because single-site charters also don’t benefit from the economies of scale that districts and networks do. For instance, Roots owns its own modern, two-story building in the heart of a historically low-income community that, like much of the city, is rapidly gentrifying. Owning its own building is both a blessing and a curse: Many charter schools struggle to find space, yet Roots has what Sondermann called “a significant mortgage.”

Much of the recent charter growth in Denver has come from the expansion of homegrown networks rather than from new standalone charters. The networks are eager to grow, and the district has approved them to open more schools. But a declining student population citywide and a more cautious approach to closing low-performing schools, driven in part by backlash from the community and opposition to charters, are limiting opportunities to expand.

Some networks have found a way. This fall, Rocky Mountain Prep will open a new campus in northwest Denver at the site of the former Cesar Chavez Academy, a standalone charter that closed last month after years of lagging test scores. The arrangement wasn’t imposed by the district; rather, Rocky Mountain Prep and Cesar Chavez worked together on the plan.

If the merger with Roots happens, it would be the third time Rocky Mountain Prep has added a previously existing school to its roster. (It is also in the process of replacing a low-performing elementary school in the neighboring city of Aurora.) Because Denver Public Schools already authorized the network to open two more schools, the deal wouldn’t need district approval.

Rocky Mountain Prep founder James Cryan said the network is excited about expanding. He noted that Denver Public Schools isn’t serving students of color and students from low-income families as well as it’s serving white and affluent students, as measured by test scores. To the extent Rocky Mountain Prep can change that, Cryan said he’s eager to do so.

“We know there’s important work to do,” he said, “and we’re energized to be part of a solution.”

Besides the schools Rocky Mountain Prep has added, it runs two elementary schools in Denver it opened from scratch. Both serve mostly poor students, and both are highly rated on a scale largely based on state test scores. Its flagship school, opened in 2012, is one of only 10 elementary schools in the entire 92,600-student district to earn the district’s top rating, “blue.”

Roots, meanwhile, is rated “yellow,” which is in the middle of the district’s color-coded scale. It’s also an improvement from the first rating the school received. In 2016, a year after Roots opened with students in kindergarten and first grade and a plan to add a grade every year, its scores resulted in a dead-last “red” rating, which put the school at risk for closure.

Interim executive director Steph Itelman, a former Roots board member who is temporarily running the school while the current board decides its future, admitted the school didn’t focus as much as it should have on what students needed to know to do well on the tests.

Students also struggled with Roots’ original academic model of intensely personalized lessons delivered via iPads, with teachers coaching them along the way. The school now uses a more traditional classroom structure – and test scores have improved. One thing that hasn’t changed is Roots’ emphasis on what educators call “social and emotional learning”: teaching students how to regulate their emotions, form healthy relationships, and the like.

That’s especially important at Roots, where many of the students are living in poverty and have experienced trauma. Though the percentage of low-income students is decreasing as the neighborhood gentrifies, Itelman said the needs of the students are not. In fact, she said, perhaps because of the instability and doubling-up of families that often comes with rising rents, some students are showing up with more intense needs than before.

Itelman and others see evidence that Roots’ focus on building students’ emotional skills is working. She offered an example: During a field day that took place in the last week of school, a kindergartener who wasn’t being a good sport was pulled from his activity by a teacher. At first, she said, the boy was upset to be missing out. But his frustration didn’t last long.

“The little guy said, ‘I know I’m hurting my class. I have a really good heart. I’m just not using it right now,’” Itelman said. When she heard the boy tell the teacher he needed to go apologize to his classmates, Itelman said it brought tears to her eyes.

Another place where Roots has excelled, parents and leaders said, is in its embrace of project-based learning. Every day, students have a class called Project Wonder. The endeavors they undertake vary by grade, but one infamous example is the time a couple of third-grade boys became fascinated by mummification during a unit on ancient Egypt. With some adult help, they tried it themselves by mummifying a cornish game hen.

Leaders from both Roots and Rocky Mountain Prep see a potential merger as mutually beneficial. Cryan said the network would possibly look to incorporate Project Wonder and other successful practices into the rest of its schools. Roots, meanwhile, would hope to benefit from Rocky Mountain Prep’s academic success, especially with black students.

Black students make up just 13 percent of students in Denver, but they account for 60 percent at Roots. Rocky Mountain Prep also educates a significant number of black students – and those students far outperform district averages. Whereas only 25 percent of black elementary students districtwide met expectations on the state literacy test last year, 54 percent at Rocky Mountain Prep did, according to data provided by the network.

In addition, Roots and Rocky Mountain Prep already have a connection. Roots founder Jon Hanover started his career in education as a kindergarten teacher at Rocky Mountain Prep. In developing Roots, he borrowed practices and curriculum from successful charters across the country. While such schools often face criticism for having rigid schedules and harsh discipline structures, Hanover said neither Roots nor Rocky Mountain Prep fit that bill.

“Rocky Mountain Prep is one of the unique schools that have incredible academic results and a really warm and loving school culture,” he said.

Hanover left Roots last month to take a position at Hop Skip Drive, a new ride-sharing service for children that’s trying to break into the Denver market. He said in an interview that after working to bring the school to fruition for four years, and running it for three, he was ready for a new challenge. He’ll stay involved, though, as a member of the Roots board of directors – which means he’ll have a say in the school’s future.

Parent Sarah Booth, who lives in the neighborhood and whose son will be in second grade at Roots this fall, said she’s not sure yet what to think of the potential merger. But no matter what happens, she hopes Roots hangs on to what makes it special.

“We like the innovative things they’re trying,” she said.

Future of Schools

The future of education reform in Indiana is pushing career-readiness to the forefront

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

After decades of blockbuster education policy changes that have catapulted charter schools, vouchers, and school choice into the national spotlight, the so-called education reform movement is in the midst of a change in identity.

A sector of influential education advocates is shifting its focus solely from the classroom to also emphasize career readiness, a less splashy type of education change than school choice — but one supporters say has the potential for broad and powerful impact.

And reform-minded Indiana, unsurprisingly, could be the proving ground for this national trend.

The state has recently put a laser focus on connecting education and workforce development. Instead of emphasizing college as the only post-secondary option, the state is encouraging schools to give students more opportunities to explore careers, take technical and science-based classes, and pursue internships. The goal is set up non-college-bound students for gainful employment in high-demand areas.

“It has a far greater impact than just focusing on one subset of education reform that is school choice, and it doesn’t divide people as much either,” said P.J. McGrew, who spoke with Chalkbeat when he was the senior education advisor to Gov. Eric Holcomb. “I think it’s something that everyone can rally around.”

The issue of career and technical education is bridging some of the political divides that the past couple of decades of school-choice-focused policy have wrought. But even with that consensus, meaningful career readiness policies still face an uphill battle, and the approach is not without its skeptics. It’s hard to start a movement around policies that require major institutional shifts, lots of planning, and take years to show they’re working.

During this year’s legislative session, workforce development bills were front and center, including initiatives like helping adults complete diplomas or certificates, encouraging internships and school-employer partnerships, and requiring schools to include more “employability skills” into their curriculums.

Funding has also been increased over the years to expand school career and technical education course offerings and incentivize the hiring of teachers transitioning from the workforce — all to fill a “skills gap” Indiana employers say is preventing them from finding the workers they need.

According to a 2015 report from the National Skills Coalition, a group that advocates for training workers to meet employer needs, 58 percent of Indiana’s labor market is made up of jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year-degree. Yet only about 47 percent of workers are trained enough to fill them.

The bipartisan support for workforce initiatives in education mirrors how broadly the issue resonates with Hoosiers. Many Republicans see career development as an extension of school choice policies, designed to allow families to find the school or program that is the “best fit” for their children. Democrats and Republicans alike see economic benefits for their constituents, whether they’re from urban centers trying to find higher-wage jobs or rural communities working to attract employees and keep industry in their region.

Ultimately, even fierce political opponents agree that students need options so they can be successful after high school.

And these policy debates haven’t been “as burdened down by blame” as past ones, said Teresa Lubbers, Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education.

Lubbers and others attribute the lack of friction to Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb’s demeanor and political approach. Indiana isn’t new to conversations about combining workforce and education, but Holcomb and his administration have made them the state’s central focus.

In trying to address the state’s opioid crisis and concerns from rural areas where industry has declined, Holcomb’s administration has said additional education opportunities for adults and better-prepared high school graduates can make a difference.

Because Holcomb has pursued a more moderate political agenda compared to his very socially conservative predecessor, then-Gov. Mike Pence, other politicians have been more likely to sign on to his workforce vision, even if they had opposing views on other issues.

For instance, he’s found common ground on the workforce issue with Indiana’s schools chief Jennifer McCormick, a former public school educator who shared many of her education policy views with her Democrat predecessor Glenda Ritz despite being a Republican.

McCormick has come out strongly in support of more ways students can learn about science, technology, engineering, and math, and set goals to update the state’s career and technical education courses.

And unlike Pence and Ritz, Holcomb and McCormick haven’t clashed as frequently — or as publicly.

The calmer political climate during the past two years has been far more conducive to a reform movement that requires a lot more collaboration between politicians and state agencies.

Prioritizing policies that create political unity not only reduces the spectacle of previous administrations, it primes the state for another controversial move lawmakers finally cemented in 2017 — making the elected state schools chief an appointed position, much like current agency heads for workforce development and higher education.

That cohesion, some believe, is what could lead to the most change.

“If you’re going to try and make a major push in the education and workforce space, you need alignment,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, a group that advocates for school choice. “Having a separately elected official makes that more difficult. We certainly saw that under Gov. Pence.”

It’s a less splashy type of education reform, said former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, who led many of those school choice reforms himself under Gov. Mitch Daniels. But workforce initiatives are still rooted in many of the same principles that drove the choice movement, such as innovation and individualization.

“There is a lot of room for big policy movement in that area,” Bennett said. “I just hope that the traditional reform community sees that as as powerful as we saw the things that we pursued.”

Bennett touches on a potential hurdle that has current Indiana policymakers concerned about this new path: Supporters believe workforce-oriented reform efforts could end up having more impact than their choice-focused predecessors — but they’re harder to create, slower to implement, and take longer to post results.

Creating a sense of urgency around these issues, said McGrew, who in May took a new job as director of policy for the Governor’s Workforce Cabinet, could be challenging.

But directing too much attention to work-based learning could have drawbacks, some education advocates say. And because Indiana has barely gone a year without changing some aspect of its education system, there’s fatigue for educators, students, and parents on the ground.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, worries the increased focus on education and workforce is redefining the purpose of education.

“That’s the debate that’s about to happen,” Meredith said. “What is the real role of public education? Is it to create bots to work in plants … or is it to create adults in a functioning society?”

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said workforce programs should be careful not to fall into the old traps of traditional career technical education — namely tracking students and pushing them into the programs.

“As long as it’s not old fashioned voc ed,” she said. “This is really giving kids choices and different pathways … it has to be the kind of pathways that are interesting and exciting to kids.”

Even ardent supporters of the state’s career-readiness push, such as Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican lawmaker who has been at the helm of many of Indiana’s biggest education overhauls, want the state to think even bigger.

It’s not enough to increase career and technical education classes and funding, or even to encourage more work-based learning, he said. He wants Indiana to look at other models for education, such as those in Switzerland and other parts of Europe, where apprenticeships and career training are very integrated into K-12 education but it’s still possible to pursue higher learning.

“I think unless you are willing to really dig down to how we deliver education and how we should be innovative and change our system from early childhood to post-secondary and beyond, I think we’re just tweaking at the edges,” Behning said.

It’s likely the state will continue to see workforce issues driving education policy, and the proposals could be even grander with the availability of state funding during the next budget-writing year.

But even as the reform strategies shift, in Indiana and across the nation, the days of more controversial education policy aren’t necessarily over. A new budget also means school funding decisions are on the table, a major factor in heated debates over how school choice is affecting districts across the state.

Newer, more complicated policies like Education Savings Accounts have failed to gain much ground in Indiana, but there are still many advocates pushing for the voucher-like program that could direct more dollars away from the state’s traditional school funding system.

Local education advocates don’t expect the same kind of dramatic 2011-era policies that established the state’s voucher program and expanded charter schools to crop up anytime soon, but there’s still plenty of runway for Indiana to stay in the education reform spotlight on innovation schools and vouchers.

“I don’t see us dragging our feet on anything,” Lubbers said. “It’s certainly true in K-12 with reform, and it’s certainly true in higher education reform, that we are a leading state, not a lagging state.”