Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Eric Weddle, WFYI

Prayer In Schools Bill Goes To Full Senate, Closer To Law

State House

Proposed legislation that would require guidelines for religious expression in public schools passed the Senate Education Committee, with an amendment altering the original intent.

House Bill 1024 would protect open prayer and religious dress, writings or other religious expression in schools.

But Sen. Dennis Kruse, (R-Auburn), says it won’t be easy for schools to execute. So he moved to strike Section 5 of the bill — that would’ve given student’s time and a microphone at assemblies or sporting events to discuss their different faith beliefs.

“This is going to be somewhat of a challenge for schools and school corporations to implement but I think it serves a worthy purpose,” Kruse says. “And I think section five pushes them a little too hard in that regard.”

Others sought to expand the bill as a way to arguing against it, including Sen. Mark Stoops (D-Bloomington). He urged lawmakers to require all K-12 schools in Indiana that receive public dollars to follow its guidelines, including religious schools.

“If it is good for public schools, charter schools it would also be necessary for private schools that receive vouchers,” Stoops says.

Stoops amendment was struck down.

The bill also requires the state attorney general’s office to author example policy about religious expression that schools can chose to adopt.

HB 1024 passed 8-to-2 and now heads to the full Senate.

The proposal was authored by Rep. John Bartlett (D-Indianapolis). He has maintained that lack of faith by teens and young adults has resulted in many of the problems facing Indiana, such as drug use and killings.

This Week At The Statehouse: ISTEP Replacement Discussion

The Indiana Statehouse. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

The Indiana Statehouse. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

For nearly eight hours Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee slogged through a dozen bills, including some of the session’s thorniest issues: prayer in school, preschool funding and reducing the current accountability for private schools receiving publicly-funded vouchers.

Senate lawmakers passed five bills out of committee: HB 1004, was amended to mirror the Senate own preschool funding bill; HB 1079, criminal background checks for school staff; HB 1136, extended latch key programs at schools offering preschool; HB 1396, speeds up the teacher licensing for military spouses; and HB 1430, suicide prevention training for teachers.

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Senate Committee Slash House Pre-K Funding Bill, Nix Voucher Link

In a 41-9 vote, state senators pushed ahead a two-year, $32 million proposal that would modestly expand state-funded preschool beginning July 2017.

Pre-k continues to be one of the most debated education bills being considered this session. ” credit=”Sonia Hooda / Flickr

A Senate Committee slashed funding Wednesday from a House bill that sought to double the state’s preschool pilot program.

Senate lawmakers wasted little time amending House Bill 1004 to mirror their own version of legislation to expand state-funded preschool and offer additional funding to other early learning initiatives.

The amendment cuts the proposed increase for the On My Way Pre-K program from $20 million to $6 million during the next two years. It also creates a new fund to help families pay for virtual preschool classes.

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DeVos Praises ‘Out-Of-The-Box’ School Management Of Indianapolis Public Schools

Indianapolis Public School's Thomas D. Gregg School 15 is located on the east side of the city. (Credit: IPS)

Indianapolis Public School\’s Thomas D. Gregg School 15 is located on the east side of the city. (Credit: IPS)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos would like to see more school districts across the country follow the “out-of-the-box” school management approach used byIndianapolis Public Schools, IPS.

DeVos, speaking to a gathering of leaders from the country’s biggest school districts in Washington, D.C. Monday, praised the IPS’ “innovation” management program that allows schools to shed much of the oversight from the district’s central office.

“… they are freed up to operate independently and thus better attune themselves to the unique needs of their students,”  she said, according to a transcript.

DeVos, who wants less federal oversight in education, says IPS gives parents and school leaders more control and choice over their classrooms.

Nine schools currently make up IPS’ Innovation School Network, a management system created by state law in 2014. The law allows IPS to contract with principals, nonprofit organizations or charter operators to run schools autonomously. School leaders set their own curriculum, culture, spending, and hiring practices. Educators at these schools are not part of the district’s teacher union.

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Indiana Youth Suicides Increase As Schools, Lawmakers Seek Fix

Rebecca Heger, Cathedral High School's mental health and addictions counselor, looks at 2-year-old Finn, a therapy dog at the school since 2015. (photo credit: Eric Weddle/WFYI Public Media)

Rebecca Heger, Cathedral High School\’s mental health and addictions counselor, looks at 2-year-old Finn, a therapy dog at the school since 2015. (photo credit: Eric Weddle/WFYI Public Media)

Suicide remains the second-leading cause of death for Hoosier teens and young adults in 2014 and 2015, according to a just released report.

Among a majority of states, Indiana ranks second for high schoolers who made a suicide plan and third for those who have seriously considered suicide.

In 2014 there were 52 suicides among youth ages 10-19. In 2015 the deaths increased to 55, according to state data.

Those jarring statistics and regular news reports of students taking their own lives have lawmakers, school leaders and mental health experts looking for ways to prevent another death.

At the Statehouse, two different suicide prevention proposals have garnered universal support this session — yet it remains to be seen how the House and Senate will compromise their unique plans.

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Private School Vouchers Hit Record High But Growth Slows


For the first time the number of Hoosier students using publicly-funded vouchers to attend a private school reached 3 percent of statewide enrollment, according to a new report.

Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program hit a record 34,299 students this academic year using the controversial tuition support but the overall growth of the program appears to be slowing down.

The Choice Scholarship Report, released by the Indiana Department of Education, also shows only a 5 percent increase of new students in the program for the 2016-17 school year compared to 2015-16.

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House Passes Budget With Modest K-12 Funding Increase

House lawmakers passed their version of the budget Monday, which gives minimal funding increases to school districts. The Senate will now discuss the budget.

House lawmakers passed their version of the budget Monday, which gives minimal funding increases to school districts. The Senate will now discuss the budget. (photo credit: Bill Shaw/WFIU)

The two-year House Republican budget was approved Monday despite criticism from Democrats that the education funding lacks transparency and will hurt rural schools.

Under the plan, K-12 education funding would be increased by 1.1 percent in the first year, and 1.7 percent in the second year, or a total of $273 million. That’s about $7 million less than Gov. Eric Holcomb had sought.

Crawfordsville Republican Rep. Tim Brown, chairman of the budget-making Ways and Means Committee, said the budget is a honest assessment of the state’s fiscal outlook. K-12 spending, he said, is a top priority as it makes up more than half of the state’s proposed $31.7 billion budget

The bill includes an additional $10 million to the state’s On My Way Pre-K pilot program and increases the per student severe disabilities grant by 2 percent each of the next two years.

It also eliminates the controversial $40 million teacher bonus program

Rep. Greg Porter (D-Indianapolis) criticized the plan, saying all schools should receive more money. Instead, the budget leaves some 200 schools with a less than 1 percent funding increase next year.

“We really wanted to see common ground when it comes to the state budget,” Porter says. “A budget that I think we all could live with. One without winners or losers.”

Following Porter to denounce the bill was Rep. Ed DeLaney (D-Indianapolis). Both made failed attempts last week to amend the budget.

DeLaney said rural schools would be hit the hardest by the budget. Of the 25 largest reductions in funding, 22 are rural, such as Attica Consolidated Schools. The budget calls for a 9.7 percent cut in tuition support at the district over the next two years

But Brown, says he doesn’t see a problem that some corporations will see cuts.

“I am agnostic to corporations,” he says, adding that school districts of all sizes can fail students and help them succeed.

Students will leave schools to find better fits, he suggested, and that the money would follow.

“I am looking at children,” he says. “And when the children – the per child funding – goes up, every child is counted.

Porter also called for funding streams of traditional schools, charter schools and private school vouchers to be separated.

Brown countered that charters and schools in the Choice Program already face much tougher accountability than traditional schools.

The budget passed on a 68-29 vote. It now heads to the Senate where it can face changes. April 29 is the last day for legislation to be passed by both chambers before it is sent to the governor for final approval.

Lawmaker Seeks More Prayer In School

Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, authored House Bill 1024 to prevent discrimination against a student on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression in a public school. (

Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, authored House Bill 1024 to prevent discrimination against a student on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression in a public school. (photo credit: Indiana House Democrats)

Could more prayer in school be a cure for societal ills?

Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, says it can. His legislation, House Bill 1024, would prevent discrimination of students who pray in school or express their religious beliefs, such as through clothing, jewelry or writing.

“What this bill does is provide religious education for high school students and allows children to pray and pray out loud in school,” Bartlett said Monday during a House Education Committee hearing. “It is not mandatory, but it gives you the opportunity to pray.”

The bill passed the House Education Committee 10-2 Tuesday and now heads to the full House.

If made into law, schools would have to provide opportunity for students to express their own religious beliefs during events where other students are speaking. The Department of Education and state attorney would be required to provide a “model policy” on these issues for schools to adopt.

An amendment added to the bill also allows principals to prohibit religious expression if it’s “contrary to citizenship or moral instruction.”

Several Indianapolis pastors spoke in favor of the legislation Monday during the first part of the hearing. Students are being dragged down by poverty, gun violence and prescription drug abuse, they said, but prayer can help them see a way out.

Rev. Wayne Moore, pastor of Olivet Missionary Baptist Church, said he was appealing to the lawmakers’ conscious to approve the bill. As a child, Moore said, he was buoyed by the religion he was taught in school, including learning how to pray.

“A lot of our foundations are literally crumbling,” he said. “We have lost our principals and morals in political decisions.”

But David Sklar, government affairs director with the Jewish Community Relations Council, spoke against the bill. The organization, he said, has heard very few concerns about religious accommodations in public schools.

“That tells us the status quo is working,” he said, later adding: “We believe as a community that prayer is taught in our religious institutions. It is up to us as parents to make sure that our students, our children, receive that religious education as we see fit.”

Sklar and others questioned whether the bill was needed at all. Students are already allowed to organize their own religious groups at schools and pray inside a school, standards set by court cases.

Indianapolis attorney Morris Klapper, who is Jewish, fears the legislation could lead to children singled out for their beliefs. As a child, he said, he was harassed by teachers because of his religion.

Klapper tussled with Republican Rep. Tim Wesco, a Baptist minister, over the legality of the bill and whether it could led to schools promoting one religion over another.

“You better appropriate several hundred thousands dollars to defend this statute if it is passed,” Klapper said during testimony.

Wesco, who was seated near the public comment podium, turned around to face Klapper.

“I’m sorry sir — I am a pastor of a church,” he said. “I know what a church is. And a child praying is not a church.”

The one student to testify was Carmel High School senior Mary Carmen Zakrajsek. Her club — Carmel Teens For Life — almost took part in a lawsuit against the school district recently over alleged censorship.

In November, a poster by the group was removed from a wall in the high school. The school said the poster did not meet signage guidelines nor was granted approval by the administration.

But Zakrajsek told lawmakers that the group’s anti-abortion stance was the true reason.

“Student’s voices are being silenced and it’s time to take a stand — for what is right,” she said, adding that the bill would protect students’ ideological beliefs.

After Zakrajsek testified, Moore asked those in the room to applaud her. They did.

The committee approved a bill amendment that would make it optional for school corporations to offer an elective course in religion, such as the historical or cultural study of religion. Bartlett wanted it to be a requirement.

On Tuesday, another amendment was approved that allows school administrators to prohibit religious expression if it’s “contrary to citizenship or moral instruction.”

Democrat Rep. Vernon Smith of Gary supports the bill and said those religious limits are needed.

“There’s a lot of crazy stuff out there now,” he said without being specific. “We need to try and make sure that does not enter into our schools as well.”

But Democrat Rep. Ed DeLaney of Indianapolis said he’s heard no evidence that prayer is constrained in schools during two days of testimony.  If this bill becomes law, he said, students of all religions will wind up offended and possibly suing the state.

“You destroy prayer by having the state behind it,” he said. “That’s what this bill does.”

A second reading for the bill has not yet been scheduled.

ISTEP Replacement Bill Clears House

The Indiana House of Representatives passed a bill replacing the ISTEP with a new state test. It now goes to the Senate. (Alberto G/flicker)

The Indiana House of Representatives passed a bill replacing the ISTEP with a new state test. It now goes to the Senate. (Alberto G/flicker)

The Indiana House passed legislation Monday to replace the ISTEP exam starting in the 2018-19 school year.

House Bill 1003 was approved in a 67-31 vote. It offers the basic framework for a new exam called I-LEARN. That stands for Indiana’s Learning Evaluation Assessment Readiness Network.

Rep. Robert Behning (R-Indianapolis) authored the bill and said it includes recommendations from educators on how to make the exam better than ISTEP.

“Make it shorter. Quicker return. End of year assessment,” he said when asked what would set the test apart. “A single test window. And have Hoosier educators directly involved in either creation or grading of it.”

The bill calls for a standardized exam for students in grades 3-8 and for students to take an end of course assessment at least once in grades 9-12.

The legislation also allows the State Board of Education to decide whether to purchase a so-called off-the-shelf exam or oversee the design of a unique test for Indiana. Lawmakers and experts have debated those choices this session.

Before Monday’s vote, some lawmakers pleaded with their colleagues to vote the measure down. But Bhening, chairman of the House Education Committee, reminded them that some type of standardized test was required by the new federal education law, Every Student Succeeds Act.

Rep. Vernon Smith (D-Gary) refused to say Behning’s name as he decried the bill as a short-sighted attempt at creating a complex testing system. He took issue with the title of proposed exam, asking why teachers should be evaluated by it when the ISTEP has become a faulty measure of teacher effectiveness.

“Our purpose is to not to really help children,” he said. “It is to embarrass schools with a population that comes from lower socioeconomic standings and communities.”

The ISTEP has become a political and educational flash point during recent years. Computer problems have plagued the administration of the exam at local schools. State officials have fought over the length of the exam.

Two years ago a hastily designed and updated ISTEP, coupled with new academic standards, led to a 21-point drop in the state average pass rate. Scores from the exam last year fell further. Superintendents across the state have said they no longer believe the test is a quality measure of student achievement.

The British-owned Pearson is administrating the ISTEP+ as part of a $38 million two-year contract that ends this year.

Failing Private Schools Could Keep Vouchers Under Republican Plan

House Education Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, has proposed a plan to allow failing private and religious schools appeal to keep receiving publicly funded vouchers to pay student tuition. (photo credit: Eric Weddle/WFYI)

House Education Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, has proposed a plan to allow failing private and religious schools appeal to keep receiving publicly funded vouchers to pay student tuition. (photo credit: Eric Weddle/WFYI)

Private or religious schools that become ineligible to accept publicly funded vouchers to help students pay tuition could receive a new lifeline from a Republican backed plan announced during Thursday’s House Education Committee meeting.

Under current law, private or religious schools in Indiana rated a D or F for two consecutive years in the state accountability system lose the ability to accept more vouchers through the Choice Scholarship Program.

Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said that’s not fair.

Bhening’s proposal would allow the State Board of Education to decide whether a private school could remain part of the voucher program despite two years of low or failing accountability grades. This would be a similar approach to how the state board reviews failing traditional or charter schools.

Principal LaQuila Dunn of the private Turning Point Academy in Indianapolis wants the rule changed too.

Dunn said the changes to state policy, such as revamping the ISTEP+ exam and adopting new academic standards, caused the K-8 school’s scores to drop.

Turning Point Academy was unable to accept new vouchers after the 2013-14 accountability grades were released. It was rated an F. A year earlier it was a D. The school is now graded A.

“We are not here today to skirt accountability,” Dunn said. “All we are asking is that when there are extenuating circumstances you see there is something in place so we can appeal.”

But Democrats on the committee, like Ed DeLaney of Indianapolis disagree. He described Bhening’s proposal as one of a few bills this session “gaming the system.”

“We set up a lot of rules for what people got to do to get our money,” DeLaney said of the establishment of the voucher program. “Then when the rules don’t work out for some individuals we bend the rules.”

When private school vouchers were first introduced to Indiana in 2011, supporters said the law would allow poor families to escape failing schools. Holding private schools to a higher level of accountability than traditional public schools was a way to ensure academic quality, supporters also maintained.

Behning’s amendment No. 6 was approved by a 9-4 vote along party lines. It was added to House Bill 1384 that deals with changes to calculating high school graduation cohorts. A vote and further debate on the bill is expected during Monday’s Education Committee meeting.

Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program has become one of the biggest private voucher programs in the county. It has grown exponentially from just under 4,000 students in 2011-12 to 32,686 students last school year. During that time, income and other requirements have expanded to make more families eligible.

report on the program released by the Department of Education shows the program costs $54 million.

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