Peter Balonon-Rosen is a multimedia reporter/producer for WFIU/WTIU news. Peter covers issues, innovations and reforms that affect Indiana education. He comes to WFIU/WTIU from WBUR in Boston, where he served as lead education reporter for WBUR's Learning Lab. Peter graduated from Tufts University with a bachelor's degree in American Studies and certificate in Film Studies. When he's not in the newsroom, Peter enjoys playing music, arguing about who's the best Ramone (Dee Dee, duh) and reading good fiction.
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Indiana lawmakers eyed bills around prayer in school, union involvement, student journalists and collective bargaining this week. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)
We’re now firmly in the second half of the 2017 legislative session at the Indiana Statehouse. Indiana lawmakers are busy putting final touches on bills they hope will become law: on topics from preschool to prayer.
This week, lawmakers debated the merits of prayer in school, publicizing teacher involvement in unions, protections for student journalists and more.
Lawmakers Eye Teachers Unions
Indiana lawmakers are considering a controversial measure that requires publicizing the percentage of teachers who are union members. In cases where union participation falls below a certain amount, teachers would be informed they can get rid of or change representation.
Labor unions say the measure is another “poke in the eye” from Indiana lawmakers who are trying to clamp down on organized labor. The Republican authors behind the bill say that displaying union numbers is about transparency – a defense for teachers who feel bullied by unions.
Leona Glazebrooks, a 20-year social studies teacher in Warren Township, testified against the bill. She says teachers have a right to not to publicize membership in a private organization.
The House education panel approved the measure 7-4 in a party line vote.
Prayer In Schools Bill Draws Controversy
Rules around prayer in school also passed out of the committee this week. The bipartisan House Bill 1024 would require the state attorney general’s office to author example policy about religious expression for schools to follow.
Despite support from both sides of the aisle, Sen. Mark Stoops (D-Bloomington) protested the legislation by offering an amendment that would expand the bill to require all schools that accept public funds, including vouchers, to follow the proposed policy. This would include religious schools that are part of the state’s Choice Scholarship program.
“If it is good for public schools, charter schools it would also be necessary for private schools that receive vouchers,” Stoops says.
This amendment was defeated.
Senate To Take Up Student Journalist Protections
Legislation that would offer high school journalists the same legal protections as professional journalists moved closer to law this week.
House Bill 1130 would prevent public K-12 schools from disciplining students for expressing their First Amendment rights in a school-funded publication.
Committee Chairman Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn) proposed an amendment to let the State Board of Education decide disputes.
“So if there is a conflict between the journalists and the school, the state board would make a final decision to take it out of the hands of the local school,” he says.
In a move supported by the state’s teachers unions, lawmakers advanced a bill that would extend the deadline for collective bargaining until mid-September. Lawmakers and union leaders say it would give teachers and their representatives a more accurate student headcount.
House Bill 1396 has garnered unanimous support during the session. It requires the State Board of Education to adopt the rules on how this type of emergency license will be granted. The bill is expected to be signed into law.
ISTEP+, Accountability Bills Still Up In The Air
Next week is the Senate Education and Workforce Committee’s final meeting. Committee Chairman Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn) said bills that do not pass will be dead for this session. That gives two of the most debated bills one last chance:
HB 1003 is the ISTEP+ replacement plan that requires the State Board of Education to oversee design of a new standardized test.
HB 1384 would give the state board oversight in deciding if a private school may remain part of the Choice Scholarship program after it’s rated a D or F for two consecutive years. Current law prohibits schools from accepting new students on vouchers after two years of failing grades.
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Jennifer McCormick, Indiana superintendent of public instruction, says Indiana schools would be affected by the proposed federal education budget. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)
Indiana schools stand to lose about $56 million for teacher training and after school programs for low-income students, under proposed budget cuts by President Donald Trump’s administration.
Jennifer McCormick, Indiana superintendent of public instruction, says the proposed budget would be “a big hit” to the state. She says cuts would hamper efforts to attract teachers, stifle new programs under a new federal education law and reduce programs for low-income students.
“Is it concerning? Absolutely,” McCormick says. “We need as much money to flow into our traditional public schools, and our public charter schools that are struggling, [as] we can get there.”
Trump’s proposed budget would slash the U.S. Department of Education’s budget by $9 billion, a 13.5 percent reduction.
It would eliminate funding for two major programs. The first is the Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants program, or Title II funds, which provides money for teacher training retainment. The second is the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which funds after school programs for low-income students.
The Indiana Department of Education is set to receive $55.9 million for the two programs during the 2017-18 school year.
In December, the department awarded nearly $10.3 million to 57 organizations to provide after school programs for students in low-performing and high-poverty schools under the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. Those organizations provide services from academic tutoring to music, arts, sports and cultural activities.
“Some of those after school programs are a vital part of what we’re doing,” McCormick says. “Just to eliminate it, I don’t think, is the best course of action.”
McCormick says she is also concerned about the move to eliminate funds for teacher training and retainment.
“That would be devastating,” McCormick says. “Many districts use that money now for class size reduction, for professional development, for teacher leadership development.”
She says cuts at the federal level would be exacerbated by “modest” state funding for schools.
“We’re looking at, potentially, a very small increase from the state level budget,” McCormick says. “So that, on top of maybe a significant hit from the federal budget, obviously, is kind of a double edged sword.”
One of the largest unknowns in the Trump administration’s proposed budget is a $1 billion increase for Title I, which provides funding to high-poverty schools. This increase would be dedicated to promoting and increasing school choice for students.
Ivy Tech Community College is second in the nation for students using Pell Grants to attend college. (Kyle Stokes/Stateimpact Indiana)
The newest federal budget presented by President Donald Trump dramatically reduces money for grants designed to help low-income students go to college.
The budget would eliminate the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, money for students with exceptional financial need, and proposes a $3.9 billion reduction in Pell Grants, the primary federal college grant program.
Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College system, the nation’s largest statewide community college system, ranks second in the nation for Pell Grant recipients. In the system, 30,766 students receive over $57 million in Pell Grants.
U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) opposes the cuts.
“Destroying the Pell Grant program is one of the worst ideas you could possibly have,” Donnelly says. “Pell Grant hits right in the sweet spot of working families who are looking to figure out ‘How can I get my kids an education?’”
The Pell Grant program is the largest federal grant program for undergraduate students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The program annually provides qualifying students with up to $5,920 for college. Students whose family income is $50,000 a year or less can qualify.
Muncie Community Schools CFO Bruce Perry resigned Tuesday just two months after he was hired. The announcement came just days after he announced more than $9 million budgeted for building repairs is not actually in the bank.
“It sort of feels like the Muncie financial crisis is like a game of hot potato,” parent Josh Holowell said.
The central Indiana school district of about 5,700 students has seen enrollment drop dramatically in the past five years. Since 2012, district enrollment has gone down by more than 1,000 students.
Far fewer students in the district means far less school funding from the state reaching the district. In Indiana, districts are funded based on per-pupil headcounts taken twice a year. Muncie students carry about $5,000 of state funds to the district with them.
Reagan Roush, center, makes a creamy chicken fajita pasta dish at a weekly cooking skills class at the College Internship Program in Bloomington, Indiana. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)
Reagan Roush likes things spicy.
“When I make Mexican ground beef, I add an onion and a green pepper and three habanero peppers,” Roush says, with a smile. “And yes, it is hot.”
For Roush, who is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, cooking is more than just the steps to a tasty meal. To him, it’s a sign he’s moving toward his ultimate goal: independence.
Like peers throughout the country, Roush, a sophomore at Indiana University, is a member of the first generation of college students with a widespread autism diagnosis reaching campuses. The growing numbers of students with autism on campuses reflect a change in the way doctors began to look at autism in the 1990s. Awareness spread, diagnoses increased, and school services emerged to include these students in mainstream classrooms.
At Indiana University, in the past decade, the number of students self-identifying as having autism has increased tenfold. In spring 2008, five students registered with the school for academic accommodations related to autism. Today, that number exceeds 50 students.
Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn (center) is head of the Senate Committee on Education. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)
So far this year, Indiana lawmakers have been debating, tweaking and analyzing a slew of education bills that could become law. They cover a range of topics: from preschool expansion, to school funding, to prayer in school.
This week was the halfway point for this year’s legislative session, and the Senate and House each passed the bills they are advancing to the next chamber. We’ve been following along.
The Indiana Finance Authority will offer free lead testing for water in public schools. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)
The Indiana Finance Authority will offer free drinking water tests at all of the state’s public schools.
The program, which was launched last week, will allow interested school districts to apply to the authority for lead testing in water sources. Water sources may include drinking water fountains, ice machines, food-preparation sinks, and other fixtures that provide water for human consumption.
Jim McGoff, the authority’s director of environmental programs, expects to find most schools at a satisfactory level, but says there is a plan in place for schools with elevated lead levels in drinking water.
“If a sample test reveals elevated lead levels, the IFA and Indiana Department of Environmental Management will work with the school district to map out next steps to address the situation,” McGoff said, in a statement. Continue Reading →
In a 41-9 vote, state senators pushed ahead a two-year, $32 million proposal that would begin a modest expansion of state-funded preschool in July 2017. (Sonia Hooda / Flickr)
Lawmakers voted Tuesday to advance a proposal to expand state-funded preschool in Indiana.
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.
“It is not universal pre-K, there are a finite number of potential 4-year-olds [covered],” says Sen. Travis Holdman (R-Blufton), who authored the bill.
The preschool expansion proposal would increase annual funding for the state’s current preschool pilot from $10 million to $13 million. It would also add $1 million for “in-home early education services.”
Under current law, state funding is available for low-income children in five specific counties to attend highly rated preschools. This expansion would allow about 1,850 new children to attend elsewhere in the state.
Many Republicans, including Gov. Eric Holcomb, Democrats and business leaders wanted a larger increase. In the months leading up to Tuesday’s Senate vote, state-funded pre-K expansion enjoyed broad support from all of these groups, and Holcomb called for it to a least double the amount of current funding.
Yet, last week the Senate appropriations committee chose its own path and cut the bill’s proposed increase, from $10 million to $3 million. On that occasion, Republican Senate Appropriations Chair Luke Kenley said he doesn’t want to expand the program more until he sees a study showing it is effective.
However, Senate Democrats raise similar concerns over the bills funding for “in-home early education services.”
“Five percent of funds is being carved out for a program that has not been studied for decades, like preschool has,” says Sen. Mark Stoops (D-Bloomington). “It’s important that we expand preschool in the state, that kind of giveaway is removed and we increase the funding for this program.”
The Indiana State Teachers Association, the state’s largest teacher union, supports preschool expansion, but raised similar concerns over money going to digital programs.
“The little amount of increase that’s going into this, we’re taking a million of that and putting it into a program that we have no evidence whether its worked or not,” says John O’Neill, ISTA spokesperson.
Other Democrats raised concerns over the amount of funding brought to the expansion.
“I appreciate that we are increasing somewhat that level of funding, but this is something that every child in the state of Indiana could benefit from,” says Sen. Tim Lanane (D-Anderson).
The bill also maintains funding for the state’s early education matching grants. That bill, SB 276, now moves to the House.
Kit Malone, who consults for the ACLU of Indiana, says it could mean some feel emboldened to deny trans children the respect and dignity they deserve. (Photo by Drew Daudelin)
One day after President Donald Trump’s administration removed Title IX guidelines that seek to protect transgender students’ rights, local groups and advocates spoke out against the decision Thursday. Kit Malone, who consults for the ACLU of Indiana, says it could mean some feel emboldened to deny trans children the respect and dignity they deserve. “We know that trans children in public schools face incredible rates of harassment and discrimination,” Malone says. “Up to 75 percent of trans children report feeling unsafe in schools.” Krisztina Inskeep, an Indiana Youth Group board member and the parent of a trans son, notes the decision to rescind the guidelines doesn’t change the law. “But it allows unnecessary confusion and turmoil in the schools and in society, it opens the door for denying students their rights,” Inskeep says. The Supreme Court agreed to hear a Virginia case involving a transgender student using the school bathroom, a case with strong ties to the newly-rescinded guidelines. Oral arguments are scheduled for March 28.
The White House has released new guidance allowing schools to determine which bathrooms transgender students may use. (Pixabay)
Republican President Donald Trump’s administration is revoking the federal stance on guidelines to protect transgender students’ rights in schools, according to a letter sent to public schools nationwide by the Justice Department.
The letter reverses former President Barack Obama’s landmark interpretation of law that would have withheld federal funds from schools if they forced transgender students to use bathrooms that don’t align with their gender identity. The Trump administration says they are withdrawing that guidance, leaving it up to states and local school districts.
“There must be due regard for the primary role of the States and local districts in creating educational policy,” the letter says.
Andrew Clampitt, spokesperson for Monroe County Community School Corporation in Bloomington, Ind., says the change in guidelines will not change the district’s policies. Bloomington schools will continue to operate gender neutral bathrooms in all of their facilities.
Clampitt says that respects all students – transgender or otherwise.
“All bathrooms are clearly identified as gender neutral,” Clampitt says. “Those are available to all of our students and it’s been a non-issue.”
Bloomington has had gender neutral bathrooms in school since 2015. Farther south, other schools are cautiously optimistic with federal government’s change of stance.
Dan Scherry, superintendent of North Spencer Country School Corporation, says the new stance will allow schools to uphold values they see fit.
“I think that the federal government on requiring southern Indiana to follow laws based on other states that we may not share total cultural viewpoints with, I think that’s overreach,” Scherry says. “So, yeah, it helps us as far as not being mandated to follow other people’s expectations.”
Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, and chair of senate committee on education, welcomes the change. Kruse says children should should go to the bathroom in facilities aligned with their biological sex, not their gender identity.
“We should keep women’s and men’s restrooms separately,” says Kruse. “If a person who is confused or switching — if they think they are a man or a woman and go back and forth — they should have to go to the restroom the way they were born.”
LGBTQ+ organizations and civil liberties advocacy groups are decrying the change.
“We’re extremely disappointed that the administration would take this action, we think it sends a horrible message students, to vulnerable young people across the country, that this administration will not protect them,” says Jane Henegar, executive director of ACLU Indiana.
Schools are still barred from discriminating against students based on sex under federal law. Henegar says that if a transgender student is being treated differently than their peers by school administration – such as being forced to use a single-user bathroom – that could constitute as discrimination.
As we’ve reported, when the original guidance came down from the Obama administration, Indiana religious groups called for people to contact local school boards and government to reject it.
Then-Gov. Mike Pence said, in a statement, education should be a state and local function.
“Policies regarding the security and privacy of students in our schools should be in the hands of Hoosier parents and local schools, not bureaucrats in Washington, DC.,” Pence, said at the time. “The federal government has no business getting involved in issues of this nature.”
The U.S. Supreme Court announced in November that it plans to take a case where a transgender student was denied using bathrooms that match their gender identity.
Update: This post has been updated to reflect the stance of Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, and chair of senate committee on education.
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