By Jason Bearce, vice president of education and workforce development

Disappointing. At first glance, that may be the best one-word synopsis. But in retrospect, disappointing … but not surprising, might be a more apt description. An upcoming election, “Red for Ed” teacher rallies that brought several thousand educators to the Statehouse on the first day of session and related considerations no doubt loomed large in lawmakers’ minds this year. The Republican supermajority seemed intent on doing everything it could – short of spending more state dollars in a non-budget year on increasing teacher pay – to pacify the K-12 community and minimize fallout at the voting booth.

Other than health care, no issue received a higher priority than education during this short session. House Republicans made education-related bills their top-three legislative agenda items and their Senate counterparts mirrored this posture. Unfortunately, from the perspective of the Indiana Chamber and other education reform advocates, the momentum on education issues this session moved in a counterproductive direction with lawmakers pulling back on – or undoing altogether – hard-won policy reforms on several fronts.

Indiana takes a school accountability holiday

At the top of that list was the two-year pause, or “hold harmless,” on school performance designations (“A-F” letter grades) in response to the widespread outcry over the disappointing results on Indiana’s new ILEARN assessments. With unprecedented speed, lawmakers heard and passed SB 2 (parallel hold-harmless language was included in HB 1001) out of committee on the first day of session, later becoming the first bill to reach the Governor’s desk and be signed into law.

However, largely lost in the furor over the ILEARN results, in which only 37% of students statewide passed both the English and math portions of the tests, was the fact that the ILEARN scores were on par with Indiana students’ recent performance on other assessments – including the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), America’s largest and longest-running assessment of student learning.

The Chamber would have supported a one-year hold-harmless, given that a temporary dip in student performance is typical when transitioning to a new large-scale assessment. But, extending it to two years seemed excessive under the circumstances and driven primarily by a reluctance to avoid any education-related controversy in the lead-up to a statewide election. Of course, what no one knew at the time was how the sweeping impact of the coronavirus pandemic would further complicate matters, ultimately resulting in ILEARN testing being canceled altogether this spring and making school accountability designations a moot point for at least another year.

Say goodbye to objective teacher evaluations

In a related move, HB 1002 eliminated a state requirement that local school districts consider “objective measures of student achievement,” including student assessment results, as a factor in their teacher evaluation systems. Unlike the temporary hold-harmless on school accountability, this change is permanent – undoing a decade-long reform that prompted many school districts to begin evaluating the effectiveness of their teachers for the first time. It is worth noting that state data shows that about 98% of Indiana teachers are rated “effective” or “highly effective” by their administrators and student test results are typically a small factor in teacher evaluations, counting for less than 10% of a teacher’s overall rating in most Indiana school districts.

Though the Chamber does not believe that student test scores should be the only factor, or even the primary factor, used in gauging teacher effectiveness, jettisoning objective data-driven measures altogether in favor of subjective measures like classroom observations by school principals sends the message that “results don’t matter” and sets a troubling precedent for future progress in Indiana education. The Chamber was joined in its opposition to HB 1002 by several education reform advocates, the National Council on Teacher Quality and the Institute for Quality Education. Based on behind-the-scenes conversations with lawmakers, many shared the Chamber’s concerns about the unintended consequences of this policy change, but they ultimately voted with their leadership. The House passed the bill unanimously with only Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn) voting against it in the Senate.

Wait … didn’t we just do this?

In what may be the most ironic reversal of the 2020 session, the General Assembly undid a requirement they passed just last year; one championed by the Governor’s Workforce Cabinet that aimed to increase career awareness among educators and students. Senate Bill 319, authored by Sen. Linda Rogers (R-Granger) with similar language appearing in several other bills, did away with an expectation that Indiana teachers earn a portion of their professional growth points for license renewal through a range of activities aimed at increasing career awareness, including but not limited to teacher externships with area businesses as well as a variety other options provided through the state or by local districts. The policy was widely misunderstood and actively misrepresented by many as “forcing teachers to work for businesses during the summer,” but in a recurring theme, policymakers capitulated to public pressure rather than clarifying their legislative intent.

The Chamber and other workforce advocates opposed the reversal, arguing that this was a reasonable and relevant approach to increasing awareness (and addressing common misconceptions) among educators and families regarding Indiana’s changing labor market, the emerging career opportunities across industry sectors and the associated preparation expectations for students. The Chamber would have supported more options and greater flexibility for educators; yet making it optional altogether all but ensures that it will be an underutilized option in most communities.

FAFSA fail a missed opportunity for students and taxpayers

Without a doubt the most frustrating and confounding education outcome of the session was the General Assembly’s failure, for the second year in a row, to pass legislation championed by the Chamber that would have made it easier for Hoosier students to earn industry-recognized credentials and degrees aligned with workforce need. Senate Bill 223, sponsored by Sen. Jean Leising (R-Oldenburg) with bipartisan backing in both houses, would have required Indiana high school seniors to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (or FAFSA) with opt-out options that could be exercised by either the student’s parent or principal.

Ironically, the House passed a similar measure last year before it died in the Senate. In a complete 180 this session, the two houses reversed roles with the bill dying behind closed doors in caucus discussions. To the broad coalition of advocates that joined the Chamber in supporting the measure this year, this was a common-sense safeguard to ensure students don’t inadvertently leave opportunity on the table. Lawmakers’ failure to pass it was entirely indefensible.

Increasing Indiana’s FAFSA filing rate, which ranks 34th nationally and lags behind our neighboring states, would put more Hoosier high school graduates on a path to better job opportunities, greater financial stability and upward mobility. This would have the twin benefit of decreasing dependence on state assistance programs and lessening the burden on taxpayers in the process. The Legislature’s refusal to act in the best interest of students and the state on this bill was staggering.

Silver lining: more support for work-based learning

The Chamber was encouraged by the passage of two measures that provide increased flexibility and support for students to engage in internships and related work-based learning experiences. Work-based learning is a key strategy in strengthening Indiana’s talent pipeline and the Chamber fully supports removing barriers that could prevent students from engaging in these meaningful experiences.

House Bill 1009 ensures that a paid internship or similar experience does not impact key welfare benefits received by the student’s family. In another ironic twist, HB 1009 was sponsored by Rep. Chuck Goodrich (R-Noblesville), who emerged as the most vocal opponent of the FAFSA legislation noted earlier. This presents a curious disconnect given that both bills would have most benefitted Indiana’s lowest income and most vulnerable student populations.

In a related positive development, HB 1082, from Rep. Robert Heaton (R-Terre Haute), made several technical changes to state financial aid programs, including a provision championed by the Chamber that now enables students in the state’s EARN Indiana work-study program to participate in full-time internship opportunities during the summer term. Prior to this change, EARN-eligible students were limited to part-time internships if they were also enrolled in summer coursework. However, this often resulted in the unintended consequence of forcing low-income students to choose an unrelated full-time summer job over a part-time experience that’s more closely aligned with their career aspirations and program of study. With the passage of HB 1082, students will no longer have to decide between relevant work experience and a paycheck.

Looking ahead

Next year, with the chaos of the elections behind us, Indiana will likely have a second-term Governor intent on cementing his legacy on workforce issues, a newly appointed secretary of education who is more closely aligned to the Chamber’s perspective on education issues and a Legislature that is well-positioned to make targeted investments that can help propel Indiana’s economy forward.

In the intervening months, the Chamber will work closely with its members and other coalition partners to develop and build support for an aggressive education/workforce policy agenda that can make good on this promise.

Resource: Jason Bearce at (317) 264-6880 or email: [email protected]