The 2013 session of the Indiana General Assembly is in full swing. Here’s a look at some education issues, with help from Terry Spradlin, director for education policy of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University.
Pressure has been building to address the fact that Indiana is one of only 11 states that don’t fund pre-K programs. Legislative leaders seem to be on board but Gov. Mike Pence has been lukewarm on the issue. He barely mentioned it in his State of the State address – he again cited the Busy Bees preschool in Columbus as a model, even though Bartholomew County voters rejected a property-tax referendum to fund the program, making it unaffordable for many families.
The bill to watch appears to be House Bill 1004, which establishes a pilot program of state-funded vouchers allowing families to send their children to preschools that earn a Level 3 or 4 in the state’s Pathways to Quality voluntary rating system. Lawmakers have suggested funding the pilot with $7 million. If it’s a full-day program, that would serve about 1,000 of the 81,150 Indiana 3- and 4-year-olds in low-income families.
Many of us would prefer state support for public schools to provide free, high-quality preschool for needy children. But given political reality, that’s probably not in the cards.
The state is looking at pre-K after finally implementing full-day kindergarten. Spradlin noted that Gov. Frank O’Bannon and Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen Reed made a big push for FDK in 1999. The first grants were awarded to schools in 2001, but it wasn’t until last year that the program was fully funded.
“Hopefully it will not take 13 years” to fund pre-K, Spradlin said. “The evidence is there – 39 other states are doing it and we know from those states what’s working and what’s not working.”
Indiana has one of the most expansive private-school voucher programs in the country, but Pence and House Republican leaders want to be even more liberal in directing taxpayer dollars to private schools.
Pence called for doing away with the requirement that students spend a year in a public school before they qualify for a voucher. House Speaker Brian Bosma and House Education Committee chairman Robert Behning favor the idea and want to give vouchers to more families.
In the Senate, SB 184 has been heard by the Education and Career Development Committee and is scheduled for a vote Wednesday. It would award vouchers to the siblings of current voucher recipients, even if they don’t first attend a public school.
These are huge changes, and they merit an extensive discussion, which I’ll try to get to soon. For now, let’s just say that it’s interesting that vouchers, initially sold as a way to help low-income families get their kids a decent education, have morphed into a middle-class entitlement.
Who would have guessed that Sen. Scott Schneider’s bill to pull Indiana out of the Common Core State Standards initiative would have generated the most heat of any education issue to date?
The Jan. 16 Senate committee hearing on the bill lasted over five hours, with extensive, orchestrated testimony by supporters and opponents. The bill isn’t on the panel’s agenda this week, however. Committee chairman Dennis Kruse has said he’s working on a compromise.
Spradlin said that, even if the Senate were to pass anti-Common Core legislation, it would be unlikely to get through the House Education Committee, where Behning can be expected to defend the standards.
The issue seems to have lost some of its urgency thanks to Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz’s call for a “pause” in implementing Common Core and an expedited state review of the standards – a suggestion that the Indiana Chamber of Commerce has endorsed.
State superintendent authority
As Karen Francisco of the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette has reported, efforts are afoot by House Republicans to weaken the hand held by state Ritz, a Democrat. Behning has filed bills to reduce her role with the State Board of Education and transfer control of voucher program to the governor.
Kruse said his Senate committee won’t consider such measures this year. But depending on how Ritz manages her relationship with the Republican governor and legislative leaders, that could change. Spradlin said he wouldn’t be surprised to see a push in 2014 to change superintendent of public instruction from an elected office to one appointed by the governor.
Arguably the legislation with the most impact on schools is the budget bill. Indiana is sitting on a $2 billion surplus, so legislators could give education a decent boost. Many of them are aware that schools haven’t recovered from the $300 million that Mitch Daniels cut from K-12 in 2009.
Pence, however, wants to cut state income taxes by 10 percent, which wouldn’t leave much money on the table. He’s proposing an increase of only 1 percent a year in school funding, with the second year’s increase based on performance (school grades, graduation rates, third-grade reading tests).
Legislative leaders have expressed skepticism about the tax cut, and they’re likely to want more than a 1 percent increase for schools. But there’s sure to be debate over how to allocate whatever money is appropriated — which schools will be winners and which will be losers?