Sex education bill not about transparency

Supporters of Senate Bill 65 in the Indiana Legislature say they want to enable parents to inspect the materials that schools use to teach sexuality education. But that’s not what this legislation is about.

Parents already have a right to see textbooks and instructional materials used by public schools under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act. So does anyone else who wants to see them.

Luke Britt, the state public access counselor, confirmed that the materials would almost certainly have to be shared as public records. And I don’t believe any responsible public-school administrator would refuse to let parents or others see them. They’re public schools, after all. That’s also true of science and social-studies materials, which can also be controversial.

Instead, SB 65 aims to make it harder for schools to teach about sexuality – especially aspects of sexuality, specifically mentioned in the bill, that the measure’s supporters condemn. It would prohibit public schools from providing “instruction on human sexuality, including sexual activity, sexual orientation or gender identity” without written consent from parents.

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Bill aims to reduce suspensions

Update: The House Education Committee approved HB 1421 by a vote of 8-5. That sends it to the full House for possible amendments and further consideration. If it passes the House, it will go to the Senate for more of the same. Supporters said the bill is a “work in progress” that needs to be revised to ensure that it’s effective. But they said punitive discipline is a serious issue that lawmakers should address.

Indiana child advocates are promoting legislation that would discourage schools from suspending and expelling students and encourage “positive discipline strategies” that keep students in school.

The legislation, House Bill 1421, is scheduled to be heard this morning by the House Education Committee. It would revise state law on school discipline to prioritize positive, research-based approaches, including restorative justice and culturally responsive practices.

“Our interest is in keeping kids in school and preventing them from going into the criminal-justice system,” said JauNae Hanger, president of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana.

The legislation calls on school corporations to create policies that reduce suspensions and expulsions and address disparities in how students are disciplined. It says students should be removed from school only for serious offenses, not for being tardy or skipping school. Students should be arrested or referred to law enforcement only to protect public safety, the bill says.

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‘Distressed’ schools lost funding

No wonder Gary and Muncie community schools are distressed. Both Indiana school districts have had their budgets cut dramatically over the past decade. It’s not surprising they’ve struggled to pay the bills.

Muncie’s general fund, the part of the budget that pays educator salaries and most operating expenses, was reduced from $55.4 million to $42.5 million over the past six years, according to figures from the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance. That’s a 23 percent cut.

Gary’s decline has been even more stark. Its general fund budget dropped by more than half, from $104.4 million in 2011 to $50.1 million in 2017.

The state declared last year that the districts were financially distressed; oversight of the schools has been turned over to the state’s Distressed United Appeals Board, and they are being run by emergency managers. This year, legislation making its way through the Indiana House would put Ball State University in charge of Muncie Schools. In both cities, elected school boards are being marginalized.

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New law trusts charter schools on teacher hiring

Indiana lawmakers intended to clear up confusion about charter-school teacher licensing when they approved House Enrolled Act 1382. They did that, but they also opened the door for charter schools to hire some teachers with no requirements whatsoever.

The new law says 90 percent of the teachers employed by a charter school must have or be in the process of obtaining any Indiana teaching license or permit. That includes a so-called charter school license, a lower bar than the standard license required to teach in a regular public school. It could also include a substitute teaching permit; you can get one if you’re at least 18 and have finished high school.

For up to 10 percent of teachers in a charter school, however, the legislation did away with any requirements at all. They don’t need a teaching license, a college degree or even a high school diploma.

Rep. Robert Behning, author of HEA 1382 and chair of the House Education Committee, said it’s appropriate to give charter schools more hiring flexibility in exchange for being held to higher expectations. He doesn’t think they will hire unqualified teachers.

“The 10 percent of teachers could be qualified professionals who might be considered experts in their field, and who are able to work in a classroom, but who do not currently have a license to teach,” he said in an email response to questions. “Ultimately, staffing decisions fall on the school administrators, who I believe will hire an educator they believe best fits the needs of their students.”

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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.

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Pre-K expansion still faces hurdles

An Indiana University research center released a detailed report last week recommending Indiana expand its pre-kindergarten pilot program and explaining how 10 others states have done just that. But on the same day, a state Senate committee slashed funding for pre-K expansion to almost nothing.

And so it goes here in the 201st year of Indiana statehood. We are determined to pinch pennies as tightly as we can, even if it means depriving our youngest citizens of the education they deserve.

The report, from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at IU, was produced for the State Board of Education. It describes Indiana’s nascent pre-K program – which serves about 1,600 4-year-olds in five of the state’s 92 counties – and contrasts it with programs in other states that started small and grew.

The programs vary in scope, student eligibility and academic requirements. Not surprisingly, states that spend the most money serve the most students. Georgia, for example, provides pre-K in 100 percent of its school districts. Massachusetts, which got a later start, serves 25 percent of districts. Other states examined are Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Indiana’s pilot pre-K program, On My Way Pre-K, is available only in Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh counties. It was created in 2014 and spends $10 million per year.

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Latest voucher gimmick: Education Savings Accounts

Give Indiana Republican legislators points for resourcefulness. They keep finding new ways to undermine public schools by expanding the state’s school voucher program. The latest, and arguably the most egregious, is the creation of Education Savings Accounts, state-funded accounts to pay for private schooling and other expenses.

Senate Bill 534, scheduled to be considered today by the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, would create ESAs for the families of special-needs students who choose not to attend public school and don’t receive a private-school voucher.

The state would fund the ESAs with money that would otherwise go to the public schools where the students would be eligible to enroll — typically about $6,000 per student but potentially quite a bit more for some special-needs students. Then the students’ families could decide where to spend the money: private school tuition, tutoring, online courses, and other services from providers approved by the State Board of Education.

SB 534 would cost the state between $144 million and $206 million a year, according to a fiscal impact statement from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. This is at a time when legislators are arguing about whether Indiana can afford $10 million to expand a popular  pre-kindergarten program.

Unlike with Indiana’s existing voucher program, there’s no income requirement for qualifying for the proposed Education Savings Accounts. So if Joe Billionaire has a special-needs child and wants to send the child to a private school, we the taxpayers would providing funding.

As Vic Smith of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education writes, the legislation is right out of the late economist Milton Friedman’s plan “to take public schools out of our society and leave education to a marketplace of private schools, all funded by the taxpayers but without government oversight.”

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