Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana school districts could sidestep state law under a new proposal encouraging ‘innovation’

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, chairman of the House Education Committee, speaks on a bill during the 2017 legislative session.

A proposal to allow schools and districts to waive state education rules in the name of innovation is the latest Indiana legislation with ties to one of the nation’s most influential conservative organizations.

Rep. Bob Behning, the Republican chairman of the House Education Committee, proposed the bill as a way to give school districts more flexibility to determine what students learn and how they spend their time. Up to eight districts would have a chance to form “coalitions” next year and submit their education plan to the Indiana State Board of Education for approval.

“Bringing these like-minded districts together is really like creating a think tank,” Behning said of the proposal, known as House Bill 1398.

Behning said the idea was brought to him by a superintendent from the rural Batesville school district and inspired by a Kansas program. That program stemmed from a model law written by the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, according to reporting by KCUR.

ALEC is made up of conservative lawmakers from across the country as well as business leaders, many of whom also fund the organization’s work. ALEC members jointly write sample laws that legislators can then advance in their own states.

The Indiana bill doesn’t go as far as ALEC’s 2013 “Innovation Schools and School Districts Act,” which suggests districts consider adjusting their testing and accountability rules. Under the proposed Indiana law, districts would be able to waive some teacher licensure rules and course requirements, such as taking Algebra 2, which a number of school leaders testified this week was burdensome for students not headed to college.

ALEC has had considerable influence in Indiana, inspiring fierce opposition from teachers unions and school choice critics. Several key lawmakers, including Behning, have participated in the group, and elements of its model laws have inspired education policy changes in the state in recent years. ALEC has also sought to promote Indiana’s laws on charter schools and private school vouchers nationally, even naming its model legislation for school choice programs the “Indiana Education Reform Package.”

Most of the districts whose leaders testified in favor of the bill on Tuesday were small, rural districts that want to expand out-of-school internships. Superintendents said students did not have time to pursue career-focused programs because of required high school classes — requirements the proposed law could do away with.

In that case, Behning said, students “are going to have to figure out other ways to demonstrate competency or mastery other than a specific course.”

The broader issue for those districts — making sure school is preparing students for available jobs — is one that has become a focal point for education policy in the state this year. Gov. Eric Holcomb, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, and Republican legislative leaders have all made job readiness the center of their 2018 policy agendas.

It’s an issue with bipartisan support, although several Democrats spoke against it. The bill is co-authored by House Minority Leader Terry Goodin, a Democrat who leads Crothersville Public Schools. Goodin said the bill would give “schools the flexibility to take the next step up,” particularly in their work-based learning programs.

Other lawmakers and advocates pointed out that districts are already able to collaborate and form partnerships with local companies.

“It’s not clear why this bill is necessary,” said John O’Neal, a lobbyist for the Indiana State Teachers Association. “We now have, in addition to our community-based public schools, we have innovation schools, transformation zones, freeway schools, voucher schools, state board turnaround schools, homeschools … this is another model, and every legislative session we have a new model proposed.”

The bill passed committee and next heads to the House floor for amendments and a final vote before moving over to the Senate.

 

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

‘I just always thought I was stupid’: Indiana considers early screening for students with dyslexia

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
LeeAnn Bricker, a mom of two children with dyslexia, testifies to lawmakers about the importance of Senate Bill 217, which focuses on dyslexia.

State lawmaker Erin Houchin knew early in her son’s schooling that he struggled to read. But it would be years before she’d know why.

“He would bring papers home and say, ‘I got every answer wrong because I couldn’t read it,’” said Houchin, a Republican senator from Salem.

Her school reassured her that her son was a “typical boy” — that he was smart, and he’d grow out of it. Still, for years, he continued to struggle. Finally, after visits with a specialist two hours from their home, several batteries of tests, and stress over insurance coverage, Houchin’s family found a doctor at Riley Hospital for Children.

“He knew within the first five minutes (my son) had dyslexia because he had a screening process that can tell in a couple minutes,” Houchin said. “There just really is not an adequate screening process; there is not an adequate diagnosis process. Kids are falling through the cracks because they are not getting the right diagnosis.”

Read: What’s your education story: ‘I was too dyslexic to do any of that’

Houchin hopes a bill she is proposing this year, Senate Bill 217, can put the right resources in schools so students get the help they need.

Dyslexia is a learning disability where people have trouble correctly interpreting letters and words when reading or speaking. It could affect as many as one in five people and is frequently passed down genetically. Although dyslexia makes it difficult for students learning to read, it can be managed with the proper strategies and coaching.

Research suggests that gaps in reading early on in elementary school can persist into high school if they are not addressed.

The bill would require all district and charter schools to employ a simple test with parental consent to identify whether students could be at-risk for dyslexia in grades K-2 and report the results to the state department of education. It would also require schools to specially train a reading teacher about dyslexia and educate all teachers about dyslexia by the 2019-20 school year. The state would hire a dyslexia specialist to coordinate efforts.

But the bill also comes with a cost. If more students are diagnosed with dyslexia, they could qualify for special education services, which brings a $2,300 per-student grant from the state, according to estimates from the Legislative Services Agency. Screening, training, and hiring additional staff could also bring extra costs for districts and charter schools.

After passing the Senate unanimously, the bill was amended Tuesday in the House Education Committee to reduce some of the potential costs, by allowing districts and charter schools to share services and seek a waiver from the bill’s requirements for up to a year. However, it’s still unclear exactly how much the proposal could cost schools and how much the state grant would offset.

Indiana has taken several small steps over the years to address dyslexia, including adding a definition for it in state law in 2015 and requiring colleges to train teachers to recognize it in students — but not necessarily how to teach students with it.

But this bill would represent a huge step forward, said Cheryl Clemens, co-leader of Decoding Dyslexia-IN, a group of parents and community members from across the state who want to raise awareness about dyslexia.

Clemens said students often have to wait several years to be diagnosed — a critical amount of time when they can fall behind their peers. As the mother of three children with dyslexia, Clemens was excited when Houchin came to her group about legislation after years of looking for more support.

“We are losing so many children,”  Clemens said. “We are thrilled to have more legislative support.”

According to Decoding Dyslexia, 19 states have comprehensive dyslexia laws, which include provisions for screening, teacher training, pilot programs, or accommodations for students. Only nine states have a statewide dyslexia coordinator.

In her testimony to the Senate Education Committee, Clemens said she routinely encourages families who live near the Indiana-Ohio border to consider schools in Ohio, which has stronger dyslexia laws than Indiana.

“This bill will help to close the gap between Indiana’s current practices and what we know from current research,” Clemens said. “It will also help Indiana to catch up with other states in how we teach reading and other literacy skills.”

LeeAnn Bricker, a Zionsville parent of two children with dyslexia, said her oldest son, Alex, had a hard time reading for years before he was properly diagnosed. Once he finally began working with a tutor in second grade, he made a lot of progress — but he still struggles. Early intervention could change that, she said.

“Alex is currently a struggling freshman in high school who has to work three times as hard as his peers for one-half the gain,” Bricker said in her testimony to lawmakers. “I know the difference early identification and intervention make because what I didn’t know to help Alex, I now know to help my youngest son, Jacob.”

Bricker said when Alex finally learned he was dyslexic, it changed him.

“I just always thought I was stupid,” he told his mother.

“I really can’t handle even one more student suffering a journey like Alex’s,” Bricker said. “Imagine seven years of believing you are stupid.”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Parents feel left out of the Gary takeover debate. This mom pushed to be included.

PHOTO: Photo by Samuel L. Love via Flickr
Gary's Roosevelt High School. Johnson's eldest daughters graduated from the school before it was taken over by the state in 2012.

Kendra S. Johnson braved an ice storm and sold candy to cover a $60 bus fare so she could testify against a bill that would strip local control from the Gary and Muncie school districts.

After the bad weather thwarted the Gary mom’s attempt to travel more than two hours to Indianapolis for an earlier hearing on House Bill 1315, Johnson raised the money to make it for Thursday’s next step in the process.

She delivered an impassioned speech to Senate Appropriations committee members urging them to make sure parents get a chance to weigh in on a bill that will massively change how their children are educated. The committee did not vote on the bill Thursday.

Parents, community members, education advocates and others have criticized lawmakers and other policymakers for failing to include more people in coming up with solutions for the troubled Gary and Muncie districts. The lengths that Johnson went underscores how difficult it can be for community members to make their voices heard.

“A lot of times, parents feel like they don’t have people or organizations who listen to them so they can have the strength and courage to speak up,” Johnson, a mother of six, told Chalkbeat. “If you don’t go take advantage of being included, it will be taken from you.”

The bill would expand on the responsibilities of Gary’s emergency manager, allow Ball State University to take control of Muncie Schools and put in place a new system to help the state identify schools that could be on the way toward serious financial problems.

The legislation builds on last year’s Senate Bill 567, which established that the state could take over districts. This year’s bill has seen ferocious, sometimes somber, debate in the legislature. Democrats representing Gary and Muncie implored members of the Republican majority to scale the bill back to allow more time for the community to be involved.

Republicans, such as the bill’s author and House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Tim Brown, have said the financial and academic problems in the two districts warrant decisive action sooner, not later. On Thursday, Appropriations Chairman Ryan Mishler said he’d hold the bill for a vote for at least another week to allow time for discussion. The bill already passed the House, so it just needs to make it through the Senate to be on its way to becoming law.

State takeover of schools has seen mixed results. WFYI Public Media’s Eric Weddle explored that issue in a new story, while also detailing Gary Schools’ decades-long struggle to stay afloat.

Weddle spoke with Sharmayne McKinley, principal at Daniel Hale Williams Elementary Schools about what she remembers from when the state first announced the district would be taken over last year. One of emergency manager Peggy Hinckley’s first moves was to buy new books. Their previous ones were 10 years old.

“You’d have thought we were little kids in the candy store getting supplies for our kids,” McKinley says. “That was a milestone.”

Johnson, 53, who lives in the Dorie Miller Public Housing complex, represents Indiana in the National Coalition of ESEA Title I Parents and has been a parent advocate for several years now.

Because district takeover is uncharted territory in Indiana, there are many unknowns. Provisions in the bill that would make Muncie’s school board appointed and turn Gary’s into an advisory committee have elicited strong reactions from residents like Johnson who feel they’re losing their voices in their own schools.

“A lot of us don’t have the money to make the trip from Gary down here,” Johnson said. “The biggest reason I fight is so it can be said a voice was fighting for the parents, whether it was heard or not.”

Read the rest of WFYI’s story here, and find more of Chalkbeat’s legislative coverage here.