Session wrap-up: How bad was it for schools and students?

Expanding the voucher program and banning gender-affirming care for minors were the most egregious education-related actions that the Indiana General Assembly took in the session that just concluded. But they are far from the only damage lawmakers did.

Book banning. Legislators teased the idea of banning books and criminalizing librarians all session, then finally put the language in a House-Senate conference committee report and passed it on the last day. House Bill 1447 requires schools to publish lists of all the books and materials in their libraries and create a procedure to challenge books as obscene or harmful to minors. Making obscene or harmful materials available to minors is a felony, and the bill repeals a provision that lets school librarians defend themselves by arguing the books are educational or they’re acting in the capacity of their employment. It was approved 69-28 by the House and 39-10 by the Senate on the last day of the session.

Indiana Statehouse dome

Outing trans kids. HB 1608 requires schools to notify a parent within five days if their child asks to be called by a different name or gender. Critics said the requirement could harm children whose parents aren’t supportive of their gender identity. The bill also bans instruction in “human sexuality” for students in preschool through grade 3. The provisions apply to public and charter schools but not to private schools, including those that receive state-funded vouchers. The House voted 63-29 to approve the bill, and the Senate voted 37-12 to concur with changes made by the House.

Union busting. Senate Bill 486, promoted as a “deregulation” measure, repeals a requirement that school boards and administrators discuss certain issues, such as curriculum, discipline and class size, with local teachers’ unions. It’s one more step in a long-running campaign by the Republican supermajority to sideline unions, which tend to support Democrats. The bill also eliminates some teacher training requirements and school regulations. The House approved it, 63-36. After several delays, the Senate narrowly signed off on changes made by the House, 27-23.

Career training vouchers. Legislators vowed to “reinvent” high school, and their claim to doing so was HB 1002, which creates voucher-like “career savings accounts” that high school students can tap for career or technical training and internships. Under the state budget, students who set up the accounts will be eligible for $5,000 per year in training expenses. It requires schools to teach “career awareness” to all students and conduct annual career fairs, and it says high school juniors and seniors must meet with training providers. A conference committee report that resolved different versions of the bill was approved 75-22 by the House and 35-15 by the Senate.

Defunding Kinsey. The budget prohibits Indiana University from using state money to fund any aspect of the operation of the Kinsey Institute, which conducts research on sex, gender and reproduction. Rep. Lorissa Sweet, R-Wabash, sponsored the funding ban based on bogus claims that Alfred Kinsey facilitated child molesting in his research in the 1940s and ‘50s. (The Kinsey Institute addresses the claims, which are circulated in right-wing media). IU officials reportedly worked behind the scenes to get the provision removed from the budget, but House and Senate leaders stood by Sweet and kept it in. IU President Pamela Whitten released a statement supporting the institute after the ban was passed.

It’s hard to find much positive to say about the session when it comes to education, but I’ll try.

Free textbooks. The final version of the budget provides $160 million a year to pay for textbooks and curricular materials. It also prohibits public and charter schools from making families pay textbook rental fees. Indiana has been one of only six states that charge for textbooks, and Gov. Eric Holcomb set the tone for the change, insisting it was time for free textbook and learning materials. The House budget would have made schools pay for books out of their state allocations, but the Senate added the annual $160 million appropriation. The final version of the budget preserved the funding.

No partisan school board elections. For the second straight year, legislators tried but failed to change Indiana law so school board members would be elected on a partisan basis. Republicans got the idea that they could rally their base and boost turnout by turning local school board races into party-run skirmishes in the culture wars. At least five bills were filed to make school board elections partisan, but public school advocates pushed back, and none of them became law.

Support for public school funding. Republican legislators apparently thought they could spend $1.1 billion on private school vouchers without hurting public schools. They found out it wasn’t that easy. When school funding “runs” were released for an initial House-Senate compromise budget, they showed that 75% of school districts would get less than a 2% increase in the second year. Public school supporters made some noise, and their representatives listened. Lawmakers reopened the budget, found another $312 million and spread it among public, charter and private schools.

They got away with it this time, because Indiana tax revenues have been robust, and they had plenty of money to spend. But there will come a time when the legislature must decide: Are they going to support the public schools that serve over 90% of Indiana students? Or will they keep showing favoritism to private schools and state-funded religious education? Let’s hope it’s the former.


2 thoughts on “Session wrap-up: How bad was it for schools and students?

  1. Pingback: Charter schools made big gains in legislative session | School Matters

  2. Pingback: Indiana: Charters and Vouchers Score Big $$ in Legislative Session | Diane Ravitch's blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s