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.