Indiana Reforms Ed: A Citizen's Guide

  • Todd Goble
  • May 31, 2011
  • News
  • Education Reform, A Citizen's Guide to Indiana's Education Reform

For an educational system as complex as our country’s, reformers have long sought a singular “silver bullet” that will be the tipping point for better education. For some, the schools are too big, so the answer was a smaller school. To others, teacher quality seemed to be the answer. To still others, we simply needed more choice so that competition would raise the level of quality in all schools.  

In fact, all of these answers, plus a wide range of others, are needed to affect substantial reform for better education. Indiana’s recently passed “Putting Students First” agenda, what is being tagged as the most comprehensive education reform package in the nation. 

Although there may be loud protests from some quarters, it is notable that Indiana Superintendent Dr. Tony Bennett and his staff have met with nearly 30,000 Indiana educators to build the agenda. With this ground level input, the legislation that has been passed has the power to effectively improve public school education, while giving parents a wide assortment of high quality school options to best meet the needs of their students. 

Empowering School Leaders 

In order to improve the quality of public school education, Senate Bill 575 gives principals much more flexibility in the leadership and control of their schools. This is done by narrowing teacher contract negotiations to salary and wage-related benefits only. All other working conditions can be discussed, but are not included in the contract. This bill frees principals from contractual limitations, and enables them to pursue new innovations to support effective learning. 

Treating Teachers like True Professionals 

The most important factor in the educational process is the teacher, and how they approach their classroom. For too long, however, teachers have experienced a work environment that did not financially recognize outstanding teaching, and one in which it was very difficult to remove teachers who were not effective. The new law will do away with several practices that work against effective teachers and implement new measures that will recognize outstanding teachers: 

  • A multi-faceted evaluation process - Senate Bill 1 provides teachers with meaningful annual feedback using multifaceted evaluations-- including, but not limited to, how much academic growth their students have achieved as a result of their teaching. Added factors include the teacher’s level of responsibility and effectiveness and the students’ levels of need. These evaluations will rate all teachers on a four level scale: highly effective, effective, needs improvement, and ineffective. The state will publish these evaluations anonymously every year
  • Merit-based pay - After the conclusion of the evaluations, teachers will be eligible for pay increases based on merit, not just on years of service and additional education. 
  • Subject-area expertise - In a further effort to improve teacher quality, teachers will be required to earn their undergraduate degree in their subject area, not simply a degree in education. 
  • Parental approval - Students will be protected from ineffective teachers through a measure that allows parents to request that their child not have that teacher a second year. 

The above new laws are intended to strengthen and improve the quality of the public schools. This will benefit the students with teachers who are truly interested in students actually learning the subject matter, and with principals who have the freedom – and the accountability – to effectively bring innovation to classrooms. 

Turning Around Failing Schools 

The laws also create a clear method for the state to intervene in chronically failing schools, in order to get them back on the right track: 

  • A Grading Scale - To begin, schools will be graded on an A-F scale and then held accountable for their rating. 
  • Financial Accountability - In an effort to hold school districts financially accountable, teacher contracts will no longer be held with status quo “evergreen” clauses that keep schools from reducing teacher benefits without the permission of the union. Neither will districts be allowed to establish contracts beyond the money received over the two-year budget cycle, thereby preventing them from committing to money that they may not have. 

High Quality Options for Students with Non-traditional Needs 

The above measures will benefit the majority of students attending local public schools. It is well known, however, that even within a quality school environment, there are students who need an optional setting in order to be successful. Unfortunately, optional settings are not available for many families due to distance, space, or finances. 

In addition to laws that were passed in 2010 which made it possible for students to transfer from one public school district to another--sometimes referred to as “open enrollment”—which provides full public school choice, two bills in the recent package take school choice to the next level by allow parents to choose the most appropriate school for their child from a few additional options: 

  • Encouraging charters - House Bill 1002 expands the number of charter schools and eliminates regulations that formerly restricted them. It provides startup funds and access to unused school facilities for a $1 lease per year. It removes the remaining caps on mayor-approved charters and virtual charter schools. The bill also establishes a new state-wide charter authorizing board that will bring more accountability to charter schools by expanding authorizers to non-profit colleges. 
  • Conversion options - The bill also empowers parents who wish to convert a failing school to a charter by setting a “trigger” vote: if 51 percent agree, the conversion will take place. 
  • Needs-based vouchers - House Bill 1003 provides needs-based vouchers (scholarships) to qualifying families who wish to send their child to participating non-public schools. This means that families that fall below the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) income level receive a voucher for 90 percent of the state tuition support for that student (about $40,000 for a family of four). Families below 150 percent of the NSLP income level receive a voucher for 50 percent of the state tuition support for that student (about $60,000 for a family of four). The voucher cap for grades 1-8 is $4,500, but there is no limit on tuition for high school students so long as the family meets the income-based requirements. Should a student choose a school rather than his home school, the voucher follows the student. 

A notable feature of this voucher plan is that the public schools must have their opportunity to meet the needs of the student first. Therefore, in order for a student to be available for the voucher, that student must attend a public school for two semesters. The numbers of students who can take advantage of the vouchers are as follows: 7,500 in 2012, 15,000 in 2013, and unlimited after that. 

  • Standards for non-public schools - In order for a non-public school to participate in the voucher program, they also must give the state achievement test and be graded A-F, like the public and charter schools. 
  • Tax incentives - The new law also supports private sector financial support of this school choice option by raising the tax credit amount for those who donate money to private choice scholarship organizations who grant scholarships to students. (Read about Sagamore’s Scholarships for Education Choice program) 

Money to Back It Up! 

Indiana ranks #1 in the nation in the percentage of its state budget (55 percent) that goes to K-12 education. The state itself is in the black (a rare phenomenon for a state government these days) and has a AAA credit rating. 

House Bill 1001 will add another 1.5 percent to the budget to fund a full-day kindergarten for the state, and create a new teacher performance fund to reward great teachers and increase overall K-12 funding. 

In what may be a unique program to move students along the path to be productive citizens, the law includes a Senior Year Scholarship program. This program permits students to graduate at the end of their junior year and spend what would have been their senior year enrolled in the post-secondary option of their choice. The program then provides a $4,000 scholarship to the student’s chosen post-secondary option, which may be a university, a community college, a career-technical program, or a host of other options.

 A Focused, Coordinated Reform Package 

So instead of seeking that single “silver bullet”, Gov. Mitch Daniels and Dr. Tony Bennett have put together a focused, coordinated reform package, and have signed it into law. This is great news for education throughout the state, as it enhances the effectiveness and accountability of both public and non-public schools, makes it easier to establish options through an expanded charter school system,  gives principals the opportunity to really lead schools toward increasing student achievement, recognizes and rewards teachers as true professionals, gives parents increased options to select the school that best meets the needs of their children, and focuses the efforts of all those involved on students actually learning.

“Our legislators did more than transform education policies in Indiana; they also passed a school funding plan that is aligned to our goals for Hoosier students,” Bennett said. “These policy and funding reforms come together to dramatically improve our system of schools, and give educators and parents every opportunity to increase academic success for every student.” 

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