Quick takes on the 2017 legislative session

A session of the Indiana General Assembly is kind of like a tornado. When it’s over, you crawl out of your shelter, look around and assess the damage.

Lawmakers finished their business and left the Statehouse on Saturday morning. Here’s a quick look at some of the wreckage they left on the education front.

School funding

The most important thing the legislature does for education is to allocate funding for schools. Education funding is the lion’s share of the state budget, but you can’t say lawmakers were very generous.

On average, per-pupil funding will increase by only 1.1 percent in 2017-18 and 1.3 percent in 2018-19. That’s not good enough. School funding in Indiana has never caught up to what it was before the Great Recession, and private school vouchers account for an ever-growing slice of the school funding pie.

The funding formula continues a recent trend of directing bigger funding increases to growing suburban schools and less money to urban and rural schools. Funding is down a lot for the complexity index, the part of the formula that boosts support for schools serving more poor children.

Appointed superintendent

Lawmakers delivered on a priority for Gov. Eric Holcomb: making superintendent of public instruction an appointed rather than an elected position. In a compromise between the House and Senate, the new system won’t take effect until 2025 and the appointed superintendent must be an Indiana resident.

At that point, Indiana would become one of only six states where the governor has full control of the appointment of the state superintendent and members of the policy-setting State Board of Education.

Testing

House Enrolled Act 1003 rebrands the 30-year-old Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress or ISTEP program as Indiana’s Learning Evaluation Assessment Readiness Network program, or ILEARN.

Lawmakers made a big deal a year ago of repealing the unpopular ISTEP, but it’s not clear the new system will be that different for most students. Indiana will still give end-of-year tests in math and English/language arts to all students in grades 3-8. The ILEARN exam, starting in spring 2019, is supposed to take less time and produce faster results, but details still need to be worked out.

HEA 1003 also allows for the creation of multiple pathways by which students can demonstrate they are “college and career ready” and deserve a high school diploma. Specifics will be up to the state board.

Pre-kindergarten expansion

Meeting another request from Holcomb, legislators agreed to double spending on Indiana’s very modest pre-K program to $20 million and expand the program from its current five counties to 20 counties. The program awards grants to low-income families to help pay the cost of pre-K.

It’s better than nothing, but it’s far short of the $50 million expansion that a coalition of civic and business groups led by United Way of Central Indiana was advocating – and far less than needed. Pre-K is an area where Indiana trails the rest of the nation badly. But influential lawmakers stubbornly refuse to consider the evidence that high-quality early education makes a difference for students.

Vouchers

The pre-K expansion adds a new pathway to Indiana’s private-school tuition voucher program, but it’s a narrow one. A student who receives a grant under the state’s pre-K program could potentially convert it to a voucher if he or she continues to attend the same school for kindergarten and beyond.

Another bill would give voucher-accepting private schools a break on state accountability. It would let the State Board of Education waive a rule that private schools that get a D or F for performance can’t add more voucher students until they raise their grade.

Charter schools

House Enrolled Act 1382 makes procedural changes for the operation of charter schools. Probably the biggest change – and one that doesn’t seem to have gotten much attention – is a shift in licensing requirements for teachers in charter schools.

Under current law as interpreted by the Indiana Department of Education, at least 90 percent of teachers in a charter school must hold a teaching license of the type that would let them teach in a regular public school. The law is confusing, but that’s how it has been applied.

Under HEA 1382, at least 90 percent of teachers in a charter school must be licensed or getting a license, but it can be any kind of Indiana teaching license. That includes a “charter school license” that they can obtain by graduating from college with a B average or by graduating and passing a state teaching exam.

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