Tracking some impactful education bills that aren’t made for the headlines

Journalists can’t ignore the flashy bills, but some plainer ones also worth notice

February 24, 2023 7:00 am

Lawmakers are busy with reading initiatives, graduation waivers and post-secondary educational attainment support. All of these have the ability to really move the needle on key metrics. (Getty Images)

So far this session, a number of education bills have focused on controversial measures involving outing transgender youth to their parents, controlling race discussions and even non-existent furries.

Journalists simply can’t ignore these measures. They must be covered because they impact Hoosiers. But I am going to use my column space today to let you know about some education bills I would rather focus on.

Lawmakers are busy with reading initiatives, graduation waivers and post-secondary educational attainment support. All of these have the ability to really move the needle on key metrics.

I’ll start first with an attempt to get more students into college or training programs after high school. The reason this is imperative is because tens of thousands of jobs are going unfilled in Indiana.

One avenue is to automatically enroll eligible students into the 21st Century Scholars Program — a statewide grant program that funds lower income student attendance at two- and four-year schools.

The program began in 1990 and requires students enroll in seventh or eighth grade. But fewer than half of eligible students enroll. That means thousands of students are missing out on a tuition-free college education. Direct enrollment would help stem that.

Holcomb made it a priority within his 2023 legislative agenda.

It would cost the state an additional $150 million for each cohort of students, though that cost wouldn’t be felt for several years – until this year’s eighth graders begin enrolling in college.

Both versions of the effort — House Bill 1449 and Senate Bill 435 — require the Commission for Higher Education to notify an emancipated student, or the custodial parent or guardian of a student’s eligibility to participate in the program and the right to opt out.

Narrowing graduation waivers

Another key measure would impact graduation waivers, which are given to students who are unsuccessful in completing postsecondary-readiness competency requirements by the end of their senior year.

Over the years the number of waivers has increased, and some advocates feel they are being abused.

House Bill 1635 would limit the number of students who can graduate with the waivers. Two options would instead be opened up for students to meet graduation requirements: passing a graduation assessment or completing a postsecondary readiness competency.

The bill, authored by committee chairman Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, originally included language that would have blocked waivers altogether.

The bill passed the House 66-24 and would set a 6% cap on the number of students who can graduate from a school with a waiver before July 1, 2027. After that, the cap drops to 3%. A similar Senate version is also moving.

Many schools will likely see their graduation waivers drop under the bill. But the effort is being pushed by state employers who feel the state is being lulled into a graduation rate that isn’t real. Their evidence is graduates who aren’t ready to work a job in the real world.

Celebrity literacy initiative

Lawmakers are also moving legislation to bring the Dolly Parton Imagination Library program to the entire state. Gov. Eric Holcomb’s budget also proposed $4.1 million to implement the program, which provides every child up to age 5 with one book each month.

Budget negotiations are ongoing, and legislators should prioritize this program.

It isn’t currently in the House Republican proposal though it does include $30 million for early reading, according to House Ways and Means Chairman Jeff Thompson, R-Lizton. And it gives $10 M to the Department of Education as a match for the Lilly Endowment literacy grants.

There are many other bills that could help students and schools – and a few that won’t. And I hope lawmakers give them more time and effort than those that are dividing our state.


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Niki Kelly
Niki Kelly

Niki has covered the Indiana Statehouse since 1999 – including five governors. She has been honored by the Society of Professional Journalists and Hoosier State Press Association for stories on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, criminal justice issues and more. She also is a regular on Indiana Week in Review, a weekly public television rundown of news. She shifts her career to helm a staff of three and ensure Hoosiers know what’s really happening on the state level.