Republicans in the Indiana legislature have been hard-core supporters of school accountability for about as long as I can remember, so it seems odd that they would toss it out the window as part of a deal that hands control of Muncie Community Schools to Ball State University.
But they did. The state law that calls for schools to receive A-to-F grades on the basis of student test scores and other measures? Muncie schools will be exempt. The law requiring state intervention and potential takeover for schools that consistently get low grades? Exempt from that too.
Those provisions of House Bill 1315 got almost no attention in public debate or the news media before the legislation was approved on a near party-line vote in a special session Monday. One wonders how many lawmakers knew they were in the bill before they arrived to get their marching orders.
In general, the legislation doubles down on the state’s year-old takeover of financially troubled Muncie and Gary Community Schools. In addition to inviting Ball State to take charge of Muncie schools, it weakens the elected Gary school board and strengthens the emergency manager who runs the district.
Ball State’s trustees will meet today to approve a resolution to take over Muncie Community Schools. The trustees and Ball State president will appoint a school board to replace the elected Muncie board.
Muncie schools will still get letter grade for the 2017-18 school year, which will end before the new law takes effect July 1. And they will actually continue to get grades in the future, because Indiana’s plan for complying with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act calls for grading schools regardless of state law, Indiana Department of Education spokesman Adam Baker said.
But it’s unclear how consequences for low grades and other aspects of state accountability will play out.
Rep. Bob Behning, a chief architect of current Indiana accountability laws, defended the legislation but said details may be tweaked in the 2019 session of the legislature. (Behning was traveling for work and wasn’t present Monday for the special session).
“There will definitely be accountability,” he said Tuesday. “I’ve talked to the department (of education) about it and they intend to still issue letter grades even though state law won’t say they have to.”
Behning said drastic measures were called for after the Muncie and Gary school districts dug themselves in deep financial holes. If the state has to bail out those and potentially other districts, he said, it will leave less money for other schools and state services.
And while there are few precedents anywhere for a university being in charge of a public school district, Behning is optimistic Ball State, with its large school of education, will do a good job. “I look at one of the largest teacher prep operations in the state having an opportunity to prove itself,” he said.
Ball State President Geoffrey Mearns welcomed the legislation, but the Muncie community appeared divided. Every Democrat in the legislature, including Muncie and Gary representatives and senators, voted no and said they were blindsided by the substance of the bill.
“That they (Republicans) did not consult any legislators that represent any of these areas, that is just outrageous,” said Rep. Matt Pierce, a Bloomington Democrat who spoke against the bill.
Pierce said the most egregious feature of the legislation is that it robs two communities of the right to choose the people who govern local school districts. He said it’s also upsetting that GOP lawmakers won’t acknowledge the role that state policies played in damaging Gary and Muncie schools financially.
“There are a lot of policies that Republicans have put in place in last decade that, I think, drove the decline of the schools and they refuse to admit that,” he said.
Both districts have lost considerable state revenue, in part because of changes in the school funding formula and in part because of the growth of charter schools, vouchers and inter-district public school transfers. Both had their local tax revenue cut dramatically by Indiana’s property tax caps.