Indiana lawmakers roll back school choice bill, advance student literacy initiatives

Concerns about students dressing like a “furry” reach legislation

By: - January 26, 2023 7:00 am

School choice bill amended but passes; plus financial literacy and graduation waivers addressed. (Getty Images)

Indiana lawmakers on Wednesday approved a bill that would further expand school choice for Hoosiers but rolled back certain provisions that would have made the program universally accessible.

The bill to widen eligibility for the state’s education scholarship accounts advanced 8-5 from the Senate Education Committee. Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, joined Democrats in voting against the measure. 

It now heads to the Appropriations Committee, where further deliberations will tackle the ongoing questions about how much the program will cost and who will be allowed to take part. 

GOP senators who support the bill, said it would give families more options and ensure that students who don’t qualify for the program now — but want to — can participate.

Still, critics say they’re concerned about how much universal education scholarship accounts would cost and whether the state can afford to fund all students who are eligible to participate. Democrats maintain, too, that the program expansion would pull additional dollars away from already cash-strapped public schools.

ESA expansion and other education bills move ahead

Currently, Indiana’s Education Scholarship Account (ESA) program is limited to students who qualify for special education.

Rep. Brian Buchanan, R-Lebanon. (Photo from Indiana General Assembly)

Although the first draft of the bill, authored by Sen. Brian Buchanan, R-Lebanon, would have extended the program to all students — regardless of a student’s educational needs or their family’s income level — an amended version approved on Wednesday includes language to reserve half the appropriation just for special education students. 

The latest language also limits eligibility to match income requirements in place for the state’s voucher program, known as Choice Scholarships.

The income ceiling is high, however. A family of four can make up to $154,000 annually — equal to 300% of the amount required for a student to qualify for the federal free or reduced price lunch program.

For children who qualify and don’t attend public school, the state will give an average of $7,500 to parents to use for private school tuition, homeschool or other educational expenses.

The previous state budget appropriated $10 million a year for the program, enough to fund about 1,300 ESAs. Fiscal year 2023 is the first year the program enrolled students. The treasurer’s office reports that 143 students are participating in the program this year.

Buchanan said he’s seeking the same $10 million for ESA funding in the next biennium, noting that the program will be “first come, first served” if the number of students who want an ESA exceeds the state cap.

“If we have to clean it up, we will, and we’re already having some discussions now,” Buchanan said, referring to how the state’s budget writers might fund the ESA expansion. “But I don’t know what it’s going to be in the budget.”

Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Richmond (Courtesy Indiana Senate Republicans)

Several other measures also moved forward Wednesday.

That included a bill to require all Indiana students — beginning with the Class of 2028 — to take a personal finance course before they graduate from high school. 

Schools would have to offer a stand-alone course with curriculum centered around life skills like opening a bank account, applying for loans, and filling out tax returns. It’s one of five bills that would make personal finance a graduation requirement.

State senators heard mixed testimony on a separate bill that places restrictions on high school graduation waivers and doubles down that schools can have dress codes. 

Senate Education Committee chairman Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Richmond, who filed the bill, said he doesn’t intend to completely eliminate graduation waivers, which are given to students who are unsuccessful in completing postsecondary-readiness competency requirements by the end of their senior year.

But his bill does seek to crack down on how many are issued by removing waiver students from a school’s graduation rate. That means schools with greater numbers or waiver students would see their graduation rates decrease, which could lower their state-issued accountability grade. 

Raatz said other language in the bill addressing “disruptive behavior” in the classroom ensures that schools can ban kids from “dressing inappropriately.”

“There’s been some complaints brought to me by some schools and parents about students dressing inappropriately. When I say that, they may be imitating or behaving like a furry,” Raatz said. “Essentially, what this signals to school corporations is that through your dress code, you have the ability to drive how students dress.”

Wide supports for bills aimed at literacy improvement

The House Education Committee on Wednesday focused on a handful of bills that seek to improve Indiana’s dismal literacy rates among younger students.

Two bills would increase training and classroom support to help educators address those declining literacy rates, especially in elementary and middle schools. Both bills passed unanimously out of the committee and will now be considered by the full House chamber.

One measure, authored by Rep. Jake Teshka, R-South Bend, responds to a request from Gov. Eric Holcomb to establish a $20 million incentive program that rewards schools and K-3 teachers that improve students’ passing rate for the Indiana Reading Evaluation and Determination, also called the IREAD-3 test.

The governor’s goal is for 95% of all Indiana third graders to pass the IREAD exam by 2027.

Teshka’s bill creates a $20 million Science of Reading Grant Fund to place literacy instructional coaches in elementary schools, increase science of reading training for teachers, and help incorporate science of reading curriculum in local and statewide schooling requirements.

Rep. Bob Behning (Indiana House photo)

The “science of reading” is defined in both bills as the successful integration of concepts such as phonics, vocabulary and comprehension in reading.

Teshka’s bill overlaps with the other, HB 1590, authored by committee chairman Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis.

The measures require that starting in the 2024-2025 school year, the State Board of Education and Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) would be required to adopt academic standards for reading that are based on the science of reading. 

The bill also requires teachers to show proficiency in science of reading instruction and to obtain a science of reading certification in order to be licensed to teach in an elementary school.

Trained literacy coaches would specifically be tasked with helping teachers at schools where fewer than 70% of students pass the IREAD exam.

“The science of reading is backed by over 50 years of evidence-based research,” Teshka said. “I think the debate is settled, and what’s left to decide is what we’re going to do about this urgent and necessary issue.”

Literacy fell considerably during the pandemic. Just 81.6% out of the 65,000 third graders at public and private schools in Indiana passed the 2022 exam. The Indiana Department of Education’s goal is that 95% of students in third grade can read proficiently by 2027. 

In response, the IDOE requested the new legislation. Indiana Education Secretary Katie Jenner doubled down Wednesday that the latest state data demands a response from lawmakers. 

“We want to do everything we can as educators and schools in partnership with our parents, to make sure we increase all children’s reading proficiency,” Jenner said. “It’s urgent, and it’s necessary.”

Behning agreed.

“I think we all recognize that we have a reading problem,” he said. “Reading is a foundational skill that every kid needs to learn and when you look at our I-LEARN results, or I-READ results, we clearly are struggling.”


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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.