Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom


Rachel Morello

Rachel Morello comes to StateImpact by way of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She has worked for various news and education-related organizations across the country - but no matter the locale, you’re sure to find her sporting a Packers jersey and tuning into “Car Talk.” You can follow her on Twitter @morellomedia.

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What’s Left In The ‘Education Session?’

It has been a busy few months for Indiana lawmakers, but they are finally hurdling toward the end of their annual legislative session.

As the “education session” draws to a close, a number of crucial measures remain on the table, including testing, the state’s biennial budget and a controversial bill that could shift power on the State Board of Education.

Take a brief look at some of the biggest school-related bills still up for passage:

Sen. Appropriations Chair Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville (left) and House Ways & Means Chair Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville (right).

Sen. Appropriations Chair Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville (left) and House Ways & Means Chair Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville (right).

  • HB 1001: The state’s two-year budget. The most important education element contained within: Indiana’s school funding formula. The future of the Education Roundtable could also be at stake. As expected, it will be up to a conference committee – including both budget architects (Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, and Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville) – to craft final language.
  • HB 1009: This is a tricky one. The measure originally started off as a bill establishing Gov. Mike Pence’s “Freedom to Teach” initiative – a grant program to fund designated districts, schools and teachers. As it currently stands, the bill now calls for a replacement of the current statewide ISTEP+ with a nationally crafted test. Why such a drastic change? Sen. Kenley had a different ISTEP+ bill on the books early on in the session (see SB 566 below) – after that effort fell through, he used his seat as Senate Appropriations chair to rewrite this bill to include his testing language.

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Study: No Academic Difference For Voucher Students

New research is adding fuel to one of the most heated debates on Indiana’s modern education scene.

A new study released Thursday suggests no measurable difference between students using school vouchers and their peers studying in public schools.

A new report finds statistical differences in academic outcomes for Indiana students using school vouchers versus their public school counterparts. (Photo Credit: chancadoodle/Flickr)

A new report finds statistical differences in academic outcomes for Indiana students using school vouchers versus their public school counterparts. (Photo Credit: chancadoodle/Flickr)

According to a report from the bipartisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability in Chicago, school choice in Indiana is “designed to funnel taxpayer money to private schools, with little evidence that demonstrates improved academic achievement for students who are most at risk.” The study compared Indiana’s program with those in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington, D.C. – some of the oldest voucher programs in the country – where they say they found similar results.

CTBA researchers say their findings indicate “no compelling reason to subsidize Indiana school vouchers with public taxpayer dollars.”

Indiana has one of the biggest school voucher programs in the country, with close to 30,000 participants receiving public funds to attend private schools.

School vouchers are an important part of Gov. Mike Pence’s education vision. He responded to the report Thursday saying he disagreed with its conclusions, calling school vouchers an “all of the above strategy.”

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Additional Grants To Fund 600 More On My Way Pre-K Spots

Despite contention in many areas of Hoosier education these days, support continues on all sides for making early education a priority throughout Indiana.

Gov. Mike Pence (right) greets Early Learning Indiana CEO Ted Maple (second from left) and Melanie Brizzi of the FSSA (second from right) at Wayne Township Preschool Thursday. (Photo Credit: Rachel Morello/StateImpact Indiana)

Gov. Mike Pence (right) greets Early Learning Indiana CEO Ted Maple (second from left) and Melanie Brizzi of the FSSA (second from right) at Wayne Township Preschool Thursday. (Photo Credit: Rachel Morello/StateImpact Indiana)

During an event at Wayne Township Preschool in Indianapolis, Gov. Mike Pence announced today the addition of nearly 600 spots for low-income four-year-olds in the fall launch of On My Way Pre-K, the state’s first pre-k pilot program.

Extra spots will be distributed proportionally among the five participating counties – Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh. This will allow local providers to serve approximately 2000 kids during the full launch of the program in August.

“On My Way Pre-K is off to a great start,” Pence told parents and business partners Thursday. “These grants will offer more low-income students the chance to learn and grow in a high-quality pre-K program.”

The increased space comes as a result of additional capacity-building grants totaling more than $435,000 for early learning providers around the state. Organizations including Early Learning Indiana, United Way of Central Indiana and the Lilly Endowment Inc. provided money to fund the grants. The state also contributed funds to the effort.

450 children received grants to participate in the January launch in Allen, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh counties. Jackson County will get its program up in time to join the rest of the group for the full fall launch.

Families can apply on the FSSA website until the April 30 deadline.

School Closing Forces Gary Community To Look For Solutions

“Everybody wants to pick on poor, little Gary, Indiana.”

Robert Crawford is a lifelong Gary resident. He attended classes in the Gary Community School Corporation when he was a kid – roaming some of the same hallways that his sixth grade daughter now frequents.

But the school district looks a lot different now than it did in Crawford’s day.

Dunbar-Pulaski Academic & Career Academy, Gary, Indiana (Photo Credit: Rachel Morello/StateImpact Indiana)

Dunbar-Pulaski Academic & Career Academy, Gary, Indiana. (Photo Credit: Rachel Morello/StateImpact Indiana)

Many people say it’s smaller: total student enrollment sits at just over 7,500, and has shrunk every year in the last half-decade, according to state Department of Education data. That’s indicative of a larger trend in the city – an exodus of many families and businesses that has left close to 9,000 buildings abandoned.

And there’s an even bigger change to come. During their March meeting, members of the State Board of Education voted to close Dunbar-Pulaski, GCSC’s citywide middle school,  a change many see as imposed on – rather than earned by – a district that has struggled with financial issues and low test scores for years.

As school leaders work to make the move smooth for local students, community members and parents like Crawford are making their own suggestions to to help shape the district’s future.

“I’m all for change when it’s time to change,” Crawford says. “It takes a community to succeed.”

‘This Took Six Years’

This is the first time in the history of the state board that members have voted to close a school without first attempting an intervention strategy.

According to current state law, the board has the ability to take over any school earning a ‘D’ or ‘F’ on the state’s A-F grading scale for six consecutive years.

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Bill To Change State Board Chairmanship Still Alive

In the waning days of the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers have yet to decide the fate of the State Board of Education.

Superintendent Glenda Ritz appears at a rally on her behalf at the statehouse in February. (Photo Credit: Gretchen Frazee/WTIU)

Superintendent Glenda Ritz appears at a rally on her behalf at the statehouse in February. (Photo Credit: Gretchen Frazee/WTIU)

The House Committee on Education held its final hearing Thursday on Senate Bill 1, a measure that would allow SBOE members to elect a chairperson within their ranks – rather than the elected state Superintendent automatically fill that position.

The bill passed committee 8-4.

Language added to the measure would also shift who makes board appointments. Right now, the governor names all members other than the superintendent. Many have suggested designating some appointments to various legislators – an idea committee chairman Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, echoed in an amendment he proposed early Thursday.

That amendment distributes power for board assignments as such:

Governor = 10

House Speaker, in consultation with the House minority leader = 1

Senate President Pro Tem, in consultation with the Senate minority leader = 1

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Senate Echoes House Counterparts In Constructing Budget Proposal

As the 2015 “education session” of the Indiana General Assembly draws to a close, lawmakers are making final moves – perhaps most notably in all sectors, finally whittling down the biennial budget.

State Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville

State Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville (Photo Credit: Kyle Stokes/StateImpact Indiana)

The budget currently sits in the hands of the Senate Appropriations Committee, whose proposal released Thursday mirrors much of the House version put out last month.

K-12 and higher education combine to make up 63 percent of the proposed $31.5 billion two-year appropriations. Appropriations chair Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, says his committee wants to increase K-12 funding by $466 million over the biennium.

As you’ll remember, Indiana’s school funding formula relies heavily on two measurements: foundation (base funds per student) and complexity (money set aside for at-risk students).

Like the House GOP, Senate Republicans want to see foundation increase:

FY 2016: $4,943 per student

FY 2017: $5,052 per student

What looks a bit different is the calculation for complexity money, based on shifting the definition of “at-risk.”

That number used to be calculated based on how many students received free textbooks, followed by students receiving free or reduced-price lunch. The House proposed changing the definition to include only students receiving free lunch.

The Senate wants to base the calculation on what’s known as “direct certification.” In other words, if a child’s family qualify for one of three federal low-income services – foster care, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (food stamps) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) – the federal government will automatically notify the state Department of Education that he or she qualifies for complexity money.

“That’s a pretty big change,” Kenley says. “This is somewhat of a balancing act.”

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Bipartisan Congressional Duo Releases NCLB Rewrite Bill

Senate leaders unveiled a bipartisan bill Tuesday to replace the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The bill, authored by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), includes items that are attractive to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including state-crafted accountability systems and maintenance of the current federal testing schedule.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised the bill, along with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, who called it an “important step” and added that the President will continue to advocate for a measure that drives progress as well as helps to close nationwide achievement and opportunity gaps.

Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., unveiled a bipartisan bill Tuesday to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that the two have been brokering for more than two months.

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State Board To Continue Testing Talks Wednesday

It’s only been a few weeks since the last State Board of Education meeting, but plenty has happened in that time to provide board members with topics for discussion.

One item sure to take center stage: testing.

The subject received a majority of the attention at the board’s March meeting – the first chance members had to discuss proposed contracts for the companies the Department of Administration recommended to create different parts of the state’s assessment system.

Members of the State Board of Education will meet Wednesday in Indianapolis. (Rachel Morello/StateImpact Indiana)

Members of the State Board of Education will meet Wednesday in Indianapolis. (Photo Credit: Rachel Morello/StateImpact Indiana)

The total estimated cost of those contracts – about $134 million – ruffled some feathers, and although State Superintendent Glenda Ritz generally agreed with board colleagues that the price tag was too high, it became evident that finding a compromise might pose problems.

In response, board member Sarah O’Brien released a proposal to cut costs and trim time off the test. She will present her resolution to the full board Wednesday, which she says will come in at around $86 million.

Ritz put out her own set of recommendations just a few days later, in an updated budget presentation for the Department of Education before the Senate Appropriations Committee. She told the group she could cut costs even further – down to about $75 million – with the elimination of IREAD-3 and other annual tests.

The board will need to decide Wednesday under what criteria they will authorize the development of the 2015-16 ISTEP+, a process that many would like to see happen as soon as possible to avoid the problems the state experienced this spring.

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National News: More States Push Private Educational Options

Around the country, more states’ legislatures are discussing measures to give parents and students the chance to seek out alternatives in education – be they private schools, voucher money or charter schools. Meanwhile, Congressional efforts to rewrite the federal No Child Left Behind law this year have “opened a wider discussion about the federal government’s role in schools,” versus how much power belongs to the states and local schools. The conversation is further complicated by concerns about the widespread implementation of common academic standards and standardized tests.

Indiana currently has the largest voucher program in the county, in addition to a robust charter school presence.

A growing number of statehouses are considering measures that would allow school districts, parents and students increasingly to use taxpayer funds to explore alternatives to traditional state-backed public education. The flurry of new bills-which range from supporting private-school options to putting education dollars directly into parents’ hands-come amid concerns of increasing federal overreach in schools and a backlash against…

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