Legislative oversight for the Indiana Department of Education

School Matters’ recap last week of Indiana’s 2012 education legislation missed this interesting and potentially significant item: Lawmakers voted to create a “select commission on education” to evaluate certain operations of the Indiana Department of Education and the State Board of Education.

The measure, added late in the process to House Enrolled Act 1376, a catch-all education and public administration bill, calls for specific focus on two areas: 1) the process and content of creating new metrics for giving schools A-to-F grades; and 2) the implementation of the new teacher evaluation system that the legislature approved last year. It adds that the commission may also take up any other education issue that members and legislative leaders deem necessary.

Why might lawmakers think that the Department of Education and State Board of Education could use some oversight? We can speculate:

// In 2010, Gov. Mitch Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett pushed for a law that said third-graders who don’t pass a state reading test wouldn’t be promoted to fourth grade. After considerable debate, the legislature declined to approve the law. Instead, it passed a compromise measure that called for taking steps to ensure that all third-graders can read at grade level, “including retention as a last resort, after other methods of remediation have been evaluated or used, or both …(emphasis added).” The State Board of Education then adopted a rule that exactly mirrors the failed 2010 legislation: It says third-graders who don’t pass a state reading test won’t be promoted.

// In a classic case of putting the cart before the horse, the State Board of Education in November 2011 voted to let the state take over schools that get an F on state ratings for four consecutive years or a D or F for five straight years. This rule conflicts with state law, which allows for state takeover only if a school gets an F for six straight years. Bennett asked the legislature this year to change the law to conform to the new rule. It declined. Department of Education spokeswoman Stephanie Sample told School Matters that the board will be asked to revise the rule so it doesn’t conflict with state law.

Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, arguably Bennett’s most consistent supporter in the legislature, told the Associated Press that the goal of the select commission is “to make sure there’s more transparency and to make sure the Legislature has the ability to question more directly and in a more knowledgeable way.” When Behning suggests more transparency is needed, that says something.

Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said the commission is “a direct result of the growing concerns that legislators from both parties had begun to internalize and voice. Their concerns were not only over what the State Board of Education and Department of Education were promulgating with regard to the 2011 reform programs but also how these agencies were going about it.”

The select commission will be made up of all the members of the House and Senate education committees, which means that a clear majority will be Republicans, like Bennett and Daniels. It’s not likely that such a group will back away from any of the controversial, partisan reforms that the legislature adopted in 2011 – private-school vouchers, more charter schools, new teacher evaluations and weakening of collective bargaining for educators.

On the other hand, all legislators, including Republicans, listen to their constituents, and many of their constituents who are teachers, parents, school administrators and school board members haven’t completely bought into the way Bennett and his board are changing education in Indiana.

The select commission will meet at least five times and submit a report to legislative leaders by Dec. 1. If we’re lucky, it could make for interesting reading.

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6 thoughts on “Legislative oversight for the Indiana Department of Education

  1. You provide some really helpful background here. Recently I spoke to the ELA assessment specialist at the DOE. I told her I couldn’t understand why they would require retention when the research shows overall damaging consequences. She said the DOE was just following the 2010 law and that I should take that up with my legislators. I asked her if the DOE had been involved in the development of that legislation and she said no, not as far as she knew. Now I wonder…was she really ignorant about where the impetus was coming from? What is DOE leadership communicating to its staff?

    • Jenny, that’s interesting. There are a lot of new people at the DOE, and it’s not surprising that some of them don’t know the history … still. Tony Bennett testified in favor of the original 2010 legislation mandating test-based retention, and Mitch Daniels promoted it in his State of the State speech that year. (Here’s one news story from that time: http://www.wane.com/dpp/news/bill-would-hold-back-third-graders-who-cant-read-at-age-level). I admit that the guidance the legislature ended up giving is sort of confusing, making it possible for DOE to claim a legislative mandate for retention. But there’s simply no question that Bennett pushed for the law, didn’t get it, and implemented the same policy through State Board of Education rule-making instead.

  2. Hello again Steve,
    When you have a couple minutes…do you happen to know which legislator/s sponsored the bill that ended up passing? Is there a simple way for me to find out how individual legislators voted on it? I’m not finding the info in the news articles I’m pulling up.

  3. Also, did you happen to catch the WTIU program on IREAD 3? The DOE representative on the panel said something like, “We are responding to legislators who decided…” Again, it seems like the DOE is not wanting to take responsibility for pushing the legislation, and claiming that this originated with the legislature and is a mandate for retention.

    Here’s the link: http://indianapublicmedia.org/infocus/school-testing-indiana-students-tested/

    • The 2010 reading legislation was included in HB 1367. Here’s a link to all the information about that bill: http://www.in.gov/apps/lsa/session/billwatch/billinfo?year=2010&session=1&request=getBill&docno=1367. If you click on “action list” you can see most of what happened to the bill. The relevant roll calls are 303 and 331, which were the final votes on the supposed compromise version at the end of the session; and 214, which was the vote by which the Senate inserted the reading/remediation language into the bill.

      This is a little confusing. Remember that Democrats controlled the Indiana House in 2010. HB 1367 started out as Democratic education legislation that had nothing to do with reading and retention. The Senate, controlled by Republicans, passed SB 258, which was the reading/retention measure, moderated somewhat from what Daniels and Bennett proposed and pretty close to what eventually became law. The House killed that bill. So the Senate added the SB 258 language to HB 1367.

      The compromise that ended up passing included the reading remediation language from the Senate — it looks like the House negotiators managed to add that retention would be “as a last resort.” It would be interesting to know what they thought was meant by that.

      It looks like Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis and chair of the House Education Committee at that time, was the lead sponsor of the bill; he also represented House Ds on the conference committee. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, represented the House Rs. The Senate players were Rs Luke Kenley and Dennis Kruse and D Earlene Rogers.

      Another person whose views on this would be interesting is Rep. Terry Goodin, D-Crothersville. He introduced a bill this year that would have required parental consent for retention; of course, it didn’t get a hearing, with Rs now controlling the House. Also, Vic Smith of ICPE may have a good recollection of how things were presented at the time.

      I’m intrigued that DOE seems to be putting this on the legislature. I hope to do some more work on this. Thanks for pointing it out.

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