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.
You can follow him on Twitter @pbalonon_rosen. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s says that it’s placed a 90-day watch on loans to Indiana districts due to uncertainty that districts can pay off their debt in a timely manner. (401(K) 2012/Flickr)
Millions of dollars are on the line for Indiana school districts, as a national credit agency threatens to downgrade Indiana school debt “by as much as several notches.”
The credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s says that it has placed a 90-day watch on loans to Indiana districts due to uncertainty that districts can pay off their debt in a timely manner. The warning was triggered by a new interpretation of Indiana law, as originally reported by Chalkbeat Indiana.
When districts borrow money – if they can’t pay off their loans, the state is obligated by law to pay in their place. It keeps districts with good credit ratings, and therefore low interest. But that technique has raised concerns.
“We believe there is uncertainty that intercept payments will always be made available to ensure timely payment of debt service in full on this ‘AA+’ rated debt,” S&P said in a statement.
A drop in credit rating could mean big bucks for local school districts. It would affect interest rates for all 261 public school districts in the state. Continue Reading →
A new report from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy reviewed changes to Indiana school finances and enrollment in the study, as well as examining funding equity between school corporations. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Recent changes to Indiana’s state school funding formula have improved equity, yet funding increases have been relatively smaller for school corporations serving the most low-income students, according to a new report from an Indiana University researcher.
Thomas Sugimoto, lead author of the study and research associate at Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, says he was suprised by how changes in enrollment and funding vary across Indiana.
“Looking at traditional school corporation enrollment, some lost nearly half their enrollment between 2009 and 2017,” he said, in a statement. “While others increased by more than 30 percent.” Continue Reading →
For Suzanne Kawamleh, the past few weeks have been an emotional rollercoaster. The Syrian-American woman was directly affected by President Trump’s immigration and travel ban. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)
For Suzanne Kawamleh, it’s been a rollercoaster of a few weeks.
“I am Syrian-American. My family are refugees, it’s not something to be proud of and its not something I would ever wish on anybody,” Kawamleh says. “But it’s the truth.”
A federal appeals panel unanimously ruled Thursday to reject President Donald Trump’s bid to reinstate his immigration and travel ban. The ruling allows refugees and immigrants from seven countries to continue to travel to the U.S. for the foreseeable future.
And the federal judges’ 3-0 ruling against reinstating Trump’s order means a lot to Kawamleh.
“I found out through Facebook, I think,” Kawamleh says with a laugh. “It felt like a victory and it felt like a voice of reason amidst all the madness.”
When Trump signed the order on Jan. 27, Kawamleh and her family were directly affected.
She was born in the U.S. But she also holds Syrian citizenship. Growing up, she lived in Syria off and on, going almost every year.
She remembers the way it used to be.
“Jasmine is the known flower,” Kawamleh says. “So, when you walk in the streets its just the vines and flowers and the scent of jasmine everywhere before the city wakes up.”
That all changed. In 2011, the Syrian civil war broke out. It began with protests in her family’s hometown. Now, she says, the town is unrecognizable.
“It’s not the same streets and it’s not the same buildings,” Kawamleh says. “One of our homes was shelled and so that wasn’t there anymore. And the other home was taken by extremist forces.” Continue Reading →
Democratic senators and the Indiana State Teachers Association object. They say it is bad public policy to take that decision out of the hands of voters and to give the governor more power over education.
Senate: School Year Start Time Moves Out of Committee
SB 88 would mandate all school districts start the school year on Sept. 1. It passed out of committee and now goes to the full Senate for discussion. Some senators expressed concerns but voted to pass it out of committee because they want their colleagues to weigh in. Read more about this bill in last week’s round up.
House Pre-K Bill Moves Forward As McCormick, Others Want Changes
House Bill 1004 calls for doubling the state’s On My Way Pre-K program to 10 participating counties. This is the pilot program that provides state-funded preschool for 4-year olds in low-income families.
The bill passed 61-34 in the full House but lawmakers from both parties say a provision in the bill to include those same children in the state’s private school voucher program should become separate legislation.
Rep. Kevin Mahan (R-Hartford City) voted for the law that created Indiana’s Choice Scholarship program wants the two issues in separate bills. Another Republican, Rep. Wendy McNamara of Evansville, also voted yes but said she would vote against the bill if it it returns from the Senate without the voucher link removed. Read more about that discussion.
Lawmakers Say Bill Would Update State’s “Dinosaur”-Style Ed System
House Bill 1007 seeks to allow more type of course providers to sell curriculum to public schools – from state colleges to for-profit virtual schools. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tony Cook (R-Cicero), says this will help rural schools that are unable to offer a wide-range of classes for students or other districts that face a teacher shortage. The Department of Education would be tasked with overseeing quality of the course providers and negotiating fees – estimated at $200 to $600 per course.
But some lawmakers and current course providers criticized the proposal.
Michele Eaton, the virtual education specialist for Wayne Township Schools’ Achieve Virtual, says her program requires three staff members just to oversee course content. Eaton estimated that the DOE would need a significant staff and funding to oversee new content providers offering many courses.
Eaton says Achieve Virtual was able to open and offer course to students from multiple school districts without any change to current law.
Eaton says she was not against the bill but warned lawmakers that for-profit providers could care more about making money than ensuring students are learning.
Rep. Jim Lucas (R-Seymour) and other Republican lawmakers rejected the concerns. Lucas labels Indiana’s school system a “dinosaur,” and called for a more modern outlook.
The legislation will return to the Education Committee next week for a vote.
Despite Objections ISTEP Replacement Bill Passes Committee
House Bill 1003 sets basic guidelines for the State Board of Education to design or purchase an ISTEP replacement for 2019. The bill passed out of the House Education committee but not without attempts to drastically change it.
An amendment by Indianapolis Democrat Ed DeLaney sought to stop students from taking the ISTEP.
Despite concerns about its effectiveness, state education officials and lawmakers agree that the ISTEP will be used as the assessment for Spring 2017 and Spring 2018.
A bill that would remove Indiana’s top education official as an elected position is progressing through the Statehouse. The bill, authored by Sen. Jim Buck (R-Kokomo) would allow the governor to appoint the superintendent of public instruction starting in 2021.
It passed out of committee Monday on a 5-to-3 vote.
“Ultimately it’s the governor that’s responsible for education,” Buck says. “This just puts all of that responsibility on him or her.”
Indiana is one of 13 states to elect its top education official. Proponents say this bill could remove many of the politics that have long plagued Indiana education.
During former-Gov. Mike Pence’s term, the republican governor’s office and the department of education were often at a head. Then-superintendent Glenda Ritz was the only democrat in a statewide elected position.
The political disagreements between the two offices boiled over into Pence restructuring the state board of education to contain more political appointments. The state board of education creates education policy that the department of education is in charge of implementing.
The Indiana Chamber of Commerce testified to the committee in support of the bill. They say it would allow the governor and the department of education to stay on the same page.
And that, to others, keeps things political.
“If one party controls every decision, that’s not taking the politics out,” says John O’Neill, with the Indiana State Teachers Association.
O’Neill says it’s bad public policy to take a decision out of hand of voters and give more power to the governor.
“I don’t think ramming through policies just because everyone’s agreeing is good for the state,” O’Neil says.
The IU system’s eight campuses will continue to accept qualified international students from the seven countries where travel is currently suspended.
“The order itself is not going to keep us from welcoming applications from those countries,” says Chris Viers, associate vice president for international services at IU. “We will continue to review and process those applications and make admissions decisions.”
Viers says about 160 applicants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen have applied to IU campuses across the state.
“The bigger question, obviously, is whether those students will have any interest in coming to the U.S. when, clearly, they’re not feeling very welcome by our government right now,” Viers says.
The university has warned current students, faculty and staff from the affected countries not to leave the U.S. Under the executive order, they may not be let back in.
Babak Seradjeh is an associate professor of physics at Indiana University. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)
For Babak Seradjeh, it’s routine by now — as a celebrated physicist at Indiana University, he travels abroad three or four times a year for work. Last Saturday, the associate professor, with dual Iranian-Canadian citizenship, was heading to Israel.
“I left my house at 8:30, I took a shuttle to the airport,” Seradjeh says.
But as Seradjeh departed, little did he know he’d be one of the thousands worldwide affected by a new travel ban, implemented by President Donald Trump. The night prior, Trump signed an executive order that blocked citizens of seven countries, refugees or otherwise, from entering the United States for 90 days: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
“I thought this is not going to apply to me,” Seradjeh says. “I can still take my trip. And that’s why I started my trip.”
But it did apply to him. And soon Seradjeh became one of about 100 Indiana University faculty and staff affected by the order banning travel into the United States.
Seradjeh, a legal permanent U.S. resident with Iranian citizenship, was at the airport, heading out of the country.
“I checked with the airline representatives there and they said they had some memo that permanent residents were not affected so I checked in,” Seradjeh says.
The order also suspended all refugee admissions for 90 days and indefinitely barred Syrian refugees.
But when the connection landed in Newark, Seradjeh checked the news. He saw reports that dual-nationals – from the seven countries – could also be barred from returning to the U.S. People just like Seradjeh.
“So basically, everything that I thought would protect my return home was gone at that point,” Seradjeh says.
With no guarantee of return, he turned around, put the research on hold, and went home to his family and the associate professor job he’s held for six years.
“It felt like the ground was shifting under my feet, just being in a mudslide or something like that,” Seradjeh says. “This happened like overnight almost, with such sweeping effect. Whenever I’m going to take another trip I would be concerned if that can happen again.”
He’s not alone. Faculty and staff across the Indiana University system have cancelled professional and personal travel.
Chris Viers is with Indiana University international services. He says his phone has been ringing off the hook with students, faculty and staff looking for answers.
“It, uh, was non-stop… but our commitment here at IU is to do absolutely everything that we can to proactively communicate what’s happening,” Viers says.
For both professors in and out of the country.
“An individual that I just spoke with recently is outside of the U.S. He has a German passport, but is originally from Iran, and he’s wondering if he will be impacted by the ban and it’s just not quite clear yet,” Viers says.
While people wait for clarification, the university is offering services to help affected faculty, staff and students deal with stress and anxiety – including information sessions on all IU campuses.
Across the university about 150 students, about 100 faculty and staff and 160 prospective students are impacted. He says they’re not a threat to national security.
“Educational exchanges are one of our country’s most successful foreign policy tools,” Viers says.
He says they combat stereotypes, both at home and aboard. But for now he’s asking people from those seven countries to stay put.
Just because of the uncertainty as to whether or not they will be able to return.
Even as the presidents of universities including IU, Purdue and Notre Dame are condemning the order, faculty like Seradjeh are playing it safe.
In his office, traces of chalk dust linger on a brown shirt. Seradjeh’s just finished teaching for the day. He clicks through photos of a past trip.
Seradjeh pulls up a photo of a white board, covered in math equations.
“This is a board with our work on it and this turned into a paper,” Seradjeh says. “This is in my office there in Ben-Gurion University.”
And seeing the photos leaves Seradjeh with a bittersweet feeling.
“The sweeping, indiscriminate and abrupt character of President Trump’s recent Executive Order halts the work of valued students and colleagues,” said John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, in a statement. “We respectfully urge the president to rescind this order.”
Jenkins is the head of one of a many of colleges and universities across the Hoosier state who have decried the executive order.
The order freezes entry to the U.S. for people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen for 90 days. It also indefinitely freezes entry into the U.S. for Syrian refugees.
International students and faculty across the state have reported changing or cancelling travel plans, for fear of not being able to return to the country.
Institutions of higher education are urging them do as such. Institutions including Notre Dame, the Indiana University system, Purdue University and Earlham College have urged students from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen to cancel travel plans outside of the U.S.
“The President’s order related to immigration is a bad idea, poorly implemented, and I hope that he will promptly revoke and rethink it,” said Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University, in a statement. “If the idea is to strengthen the protection of Americans against terrorism, there are many far better ways to achieve it.”
Around 100 of Purdue’s 40,000 students are from the countries named in this week’s executive order from the White House and hold non-immigrant visas. Another 10 faculty are citizens of those countries.
“We urge the administration to end this executive order, as quickly as possible,” McRobbie said. “At the same time, we remain committed to doing all that we can within the bounds of the law to vigorously protect and support IU students, faculty and staff.”
McRobbie says IU recognizes the “critical importance” of a strong and effective visa process to protecting our national security and will support collaborative efforts to ensure the process “prevents entry from anyone who wishes to harm Americans.”
Jen Pearl, in Bloomington, organized a campaign to sign postcards and banners, telling Muslim and international university students that they are welcome.
“I feel really good about it,” Pearl said. “People had messages of support for them and we just hope this is momentum to move forward here.”
The universities plan to hold information sessions for affected students this week.
The Indiana Statehouse. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)
More than half of Indiana’s state budget funds education – from preschool to higher education, from transportation to salaries.
As the 2017 legislative session gets underway, there’s a lot at stake.
We’re there, taking it all in, as it all unfolds. Here’s what you need to know:
Pre-K Expansion Had Its First Hearing
SB 276: Pre-K Expansion– This is the Senate’s version of expanding the current pre-K pilot program, On My Way Pre-K. There is a similar bill in the House. This would increase the number of counties receiving scholarships, from five to 10. It would allocate $20 million to the program.
Gov. Eric Holcomb asked for a specific expert witness to testify to the committee. The governor has been an outspoken proponent for expanding state-funded pre-K.
Public testimony on just this bill lasted almost two hours during its first hearing Wednesday. Parents, pre-K advocates and stakeholders testified in favor of expanding the program.
Additional pre-K funding is likely to get traction this session, as lawmakers decide what it should look like.
HB 1009: School Financial Management – This bill would collapse various funds schools are required to use when paying for certain types of expenses and just have two: educational and operations.
Essentially, the bill would simplify school funding by elimination some of the state funding streams – these earmark funds for things like facilities and bus replacement. It would collapse them into two accounts: instruction expenses – like teacher pay and supplies – and operations.
The state budget agency’s report on the legislation says, the education fund would “be used as the exclusive fund to pay expenses allocated to student instruction and learning.”
The new operations fund would combine a number of funds: capital projects, transportation, school bus replacement, public playground and an art association or a historical society fund.
New History Class Requirements Advanced In Legislature
SB 29: Indiana History Class–This bill would require high schools to offer Indiana studies as an elective, semester-long course every year. It passed out of the Senate this week.
On Tuesday, the House Education Committee unanimously approved HB 1079.
Bill To Change Superintendent Contracts Sent Back For Revision
SB 182: Superintendent Contracts– Sets provisions for a superintendent’s contract. Those include making the contract for at least a year, but not longer than three.
Some people testified against mandating provisions in a contract, saying that takes away local control. The bill will come back before the committee next week, and its author, Sen. Erin Houchin, says she will have amendments.
Extended Care For Preschoolers
HB 1136: Extended School Care For 4- And 5-Year-Olds– A bill that would extend before- and after-school care for 4- and 5-year olds passed unanimously out of House Education and now heads to the full House. HB 1136 focuses on so-called “latch key” programs at schools that also offer preschool.
Legislative author Rep. David Frizzell (R-Indianapolis), expected easy passage, but some did question if schools should be required to offer additional care for the youngest students.
An amendment now let’s schools decide if they will offer the federally funded program for preschoolers.
Help us help you! We want to know what you want covered. Have a question or story idea? A specific policy that deserves more explanation? Reach out! Leave a comment or reach reporter Peter Balonon-Rosen at email@example.com and reporter Claire McInerny at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, has authored two bills expanding teacher background checks. The bills are currently being considered by the Indiana House Committee on Education. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)
As Indiana lawmakers consider measures to strengthen the school background check laws, the Indiana Department of Education is investigating 85 cases of alleged educator misconduct, according to department officials.
Of the 85 licensed educators currently under investigation approximately 40 involve at least an allegation, if not charges, of sexual or inappropriate contact with a student.
“Teachers and employees at public schools, and other schools for that matter, are having wrongful relationships with the students,” says Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn).
In response, Kruse, chair of the Indiana House Committee on Education, is recommending proposed changes to Indiana background check laws.
In proposed legislation, all employees, would be required to get background checks every five years.
“After a period of five years, things may have happened in your life,” Kruse says. “You may have made some wrong decisions and the school doesn’t know about it.”
While districts do give new employees – from teachers to cafeteria staff to school aides – background checks within three months of starting, that law took effect in 2009. So plenty of staff hired before then, never have had a background check.
Under Kruse’s proposed changes, all employees would be checked for criminal history and allegations, in- and out-of-state.
Most Cases Are ‘People Without Any Prior Criminal History’
Over at the Indiana Department of Education, Kelly Bauder is a department staff attorney.
“One of my main responsibilities is to work on teacher license, suspensions and revocations,” Bauder says.
Since 2013, the department has revoked 48 educator licenses for misconduct. All 48 cases included sex offenses, which could include child seduction, sexual misconduct with a minor and child molestation.
Of those, 13 eventually pled to a lesser offense or were not charged with a sex crime. Actions like sexting aren’t necessarily criminal.
“We get a lot of cases that we see that didn’t rise to the level of being charged criminally, but were inappropriate,” Bauder says. “And sexting is probably one of the biggest ones that I get.”
Bauder says extending background checks is a good first step.
“I think it just can’t hurt,” Bauder says. She says it will allow the cadre of Indiana educators hired before 2009 to get background checks.
But the education department isn’t counting on lawmakers to fix the problem.
“We don’t wait, here at the department for the legislature telling us that we should be doing things,” Bauder says.
She says, prevention measures, like trainings around ethical and professional behavior, are more important than checking someone’s past.
“The majority of the cases that I see are people without any prior criminal history,” Bauder says.
Meaning, background checks wouldn’t have stopped them from getting into schools in the first place.
Volunteers Could Be Left Out Of Legislation Changes
While the proposed changes to the law would now check all school employees, each district would still make its own rules for volunteers, including some coaches.
And that concerns the department, because, Bauder says, if a volunteer coach is let go for sexual misconduct, but not charged with a crime, he or she could get a job elsewhere. They’d have no criminal record.
“Until someone takes responsibility, for it and is willing to require that coaches have a license that could be revoked so they can’t move from school to school, that will be a continuing problem that the department simply can’t address, if they’re not a licensed teacher, as well,” Bauder says.
Now some districts, do require background checks for volunteers. Jeff Hendrix, head of Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, says there’s no statewide standard – individual districts make their own policies.
“If they’re paid by the school corporation, they’re going to have the check,” Hendrix says. “If they’re coaches or volunteers – we have done, in the past, limited criminal history checks as well.”
None of the three background check bills currently being reviewed by Senate and House committees on education include volunteers – it’d still be up to individual schools and districts.
Bills currently under consideration:
SB 34: Provides that school corporation, charter school or nonpublic school conduct expanded criminal history checks and expanded child protection index checks on each employee every five years. Employees are responsible for the costs.
SB 298: Requires an individual to have a completed expanded criminal history check and expanded child protection index check before beginning employment. (Current law allows individuals to be employed for up to three months before the checks are completed)
HB 1079: Requires an individual to have a completed expanded criminal history check and expanded child protection index check before beginning employment. Provides that school corporation, charter school or nonpublic school may conduct expanded criminal history checks and expanded child protection index checks on each employee every five years.
We’re following this issue. Have a story you’d like to tell or tip for following up on misconduct? Reach reporter Peter Balonon-Rosen at email@example.com.
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