These are the major education topics Indiana lawmakers expect to focus on in 2024

Literacy, absenteeism and antisemitism are among Republican legislative leaders’ top priorities.

By: - January 3, 2024 6:30 am

Indiana lawmakers plan to tackle literacy, absenteeism and more this session. (Getty Images)

Although Indiana lawmakers maintain the 2024 legislative session will be quicker, quieter and “noncontroversial,” there’s no shortage of critical — even touchy — education-related topics expected to be prioritized in the coming months.

The General Assembly’s next reconvening comes amid what some state leaders have called a statewide literacy “crisis.” The latest Indiana data indicates that one in five third-graders currently lacks foundational reading skills.

Policymakers said they’re also increasingly concerned about high rates of absenteeism in Hoosier schools. Nearly 20% of Hoosier students were chronically absent from school last year — meaning that they missed 18 days or more — according to the Indiana State Board of Education. 

GOP leadership said those issues are top priorities in 2024. A review — and possible tweaks — to last year’s work-based learning legislation are also expected, in addition to new bills targeting antisemitism on college campuses and cell phone use in K-12 classrooms.

Democrats, on the other hand, said they want to focus policy on early education — like fully funding pre-K and lowering the compulsory age for starting school to five. The state’s largest teachers union also wants lawmakers to reopen the state budget to send more dollars to public schools in the second year of the biennium. Republican legislative leaders seem reluctant to do so, however.

Other key agenda items for the Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA) include better collective bargaining, increased pay for support staff, more say over curriculum, and new social and emotional learning support for students.

Republican House Speaker Todd Huston emphasized that the short session will primarily deal with “implementation” and “fine-tuning” laws already in effect. “It’s get in and get out,” Huston said of the session while speaking at a legislative conference in December.

Republican Sen. Jeff Raatz, of Richmond, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, additionally said he’s hoping to keep the session “noncontroversial and short,” but noted “there are certainly some big issues out there” still needing addressed.

Here’s a look at five education issues lawmakers said they plan to tackle during the non-budget year.

Improving third-grade literacy

Scrambling to improve literacy rates among Hoosier students, state lawmakers said they are adamant to toughen Indiana’s policy that requires most kids who are deficient in reading to repeat the third grade.

Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray speaks during the Dentons Legislative Conference on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2023. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Huston and Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray each said their caucuses will focus on addressing literacy in the 2024 legislative session — specifically by addressing Indiana’s third grade retention law. The Republican leaders both maintain that the current state law isn’t being implemented effectively.

Currently, Indiana third-graders who fail the statewide reading exam can be held back, although there are numerous exceptions, and deciding how to implement the state policy is ultimately left up to schools.

Bray said “narrowing some of those exceptions” will be a primary focus.

The proposal has so far been met with skepticism from Hoosier teachers, school officials and education experts who maintain that a more stringent statewide retention law could further inflate classroom sizes and have negative social and emotional effects for students. Critics additionally caution that holding back more kids will cost the state hundreds of millions dollars more in education expenses.

“There was a little bit of controversy there on both sides of the fence,” Raatz said about third grade retention. “But it’s (the General Assembly’s) responsibility to do the very best job we can to make sure that students can read as they go off into their careers.”

Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner also said that too many Indiana third-graders who lack foundational reading skills are advancing to the fourth grade. She said she wants Hoosier lawmakers to toughen the state’s third grade retention policies — while keeping some exemptions in place.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said he is additionally working on a similar proposal, but hasn’t provided specific details.

Tackling chronic absenteeism

Lawmakers have also guaranteed to spend time identifying solutions to the state’s high rates of chronic absenteeism.

According to the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE), roughly 221,000 Hoosier students were considered chronically absent during the 2022-23 academic year.

More than 400,000 students missed at least 10 days of school — which, per Indiana statute — made them “habitually absent.”

Student absences have been on the rise since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Indiana and across the nation. Although Indiana’s latest numbers show slight improvements, absentee rates during the 2022-23 school year were still 8% higher than before the pandemic.

Educators around the state say the reasons for absences vary, but family challenges some students face at home, along with hard-to-break tendencies to keep kids home when even mildly unwell — a habit borne out of the pandemic — are key factors. Schools are already getting creative to try to combat the growing problem.

Indiana Education Secretary Katie Jenner speaks at the Dentons Legislative Conference on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Jenner, along with Republican state legislative leaders, have said that high rates of absenteeism are likely contributing to the state’s dismal literacy rates

Lawmakers and local officials are in tandem that part of the response needs to include more targeted efforts to get kids showing up to school consistently. 

But agreeing on new policies could prove more challenging. Some ideas emphasize increased relationship-building between schools and parents, and directing more resources at schools to help hire additional support staff, for example. Other possible solutions are more punitive, however, and could see local courts get more involved in compelling students to go to school.

Bray said that “truancy,” specifically, is on the General Assembly’s radar. He expects bills will be filed to address attendance issues but did not provide specifics.

Raatz agreed, saying “there will be a bill dealing with truancy issues.”

Revisiting career-readiness

After the passage of House Enrolled Act 1002 in the 2023 session, GOP lawmakers said they’re looking to make “tweaks” and “improvements” to the massive, somewhat controversial bill that put in motion statewide career-centered education and training programs. 

At its core, the legislation seeks to expand work-based learning in Indiana high schools, such as apprenticeships and internships.

Much of that includes the implementation of new high school diploma requirements that are more “flexible and relevant to students, employers, and communities,” as well as improving access to high-quality work-based learning opportunities and increasing the number of postsecondary credentials earned by students before they graduate from high school.

Democrats and other critics of the bill maintained that Indiana already had robust career and technical education programs. They argued that lawmakers should instead focus on boosting resources to those programs, rather than creating a new system that lacks clear enough guidelines or accountability measures — especially given that private businesses are expected to play a major role in new career-training initiatives.

Skeptics also remain concerned about loose parameters in the bill that would allow students to use money from state scholarship programs on job training, instead of traditional college coursework.  

Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, speaks while on stage at the Dentons Legislative Conference on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

“We’re glad to hear that the majority is prepared to make some changes to what I call the vocational education bill,” said Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis. “It was not ready … there were a lot of problems with it, and it needs to be adjusted, and we need to put some things (in the bill) on the backburner.”

Raatz held, however, that Indiana’s degree and credentialing systems are “operating under a century of the same behavior.” 

“We have to ask ourselves … Are we prepared for tomorrow?” the senator asked. “Some of what we hear is, ‘Well, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing … but if we don’t change, Indiana will not have a workforce.”

Huston said he’s “excited” about the reaction to new work-based learning opportunities — particularly among Hoosier students, parents and families “who have recognized this is a key component to making a relevant education system for our students in the state.”

“But we need employers to step up and open more spots (for internships and apprenticeships),” he continued. “We began last year — I think this is another thing we have to tweak and implement a little better this year. We have to look at how we can provide more flexibility for schools and families and for companies. I don’t think there’s anything more crucial than creating an education system that delivers output that kids and families want, but also that meets our workforce needs.”

Bray added that “we don’t want schools deciding” kids’ career paths, and that legislation moving forward should empower those choices to be made by parents and students.

Targeting cell phones?

Without providing many details, Raatz also said to expect a bill “that’s a little bit more controversial” to restrict cell phone usage in K-12 classrooms.

He told the IndyStar the legislation is still in the works, but could mirror policies already in effect at some schools, including requirements for students to keep cell phones in lockers during class times. 

Florida last year passed a ban on cellphone use during class time and some schools are putting even stricter restrictions on students, The New York Times reported.

Cracking down on antisemitism

In an opening address on Organization Day at the Statehouse, Huston highlighted a bill from the 2023 session that sought to codify antisemitism as discrimination on the basis of religion in the section of Indiana law about equal opportunity in schools. The bill, authored by Rep. Chris Jeter, R-Fishers, passed out of the House but did not advance from the Senate.

Huston has since said repeatedly — as the war between Israel and Hamas continues to unfold — that one of his caucus’ priorities is passing legislation to define antisemitism, including it in state code as religious discrimination and requiring schools to provide education “free of religious discrimination.”

“It was a good bill last year; it’s even more appropriate this year,” Huston said in November. “You don’t have to turn on the news or read the news not to see the situation happening far too often across our country to the Jewish students. We just happened to be a little bit ahead of it last year.”

Raatz promised legislation, though he said lawmakers “have to be careful when putting together that bill — and certainly, we will be.”

Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Richmond, speaks at the Dentons Legislative Conference on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

But Senate Minority Leader Greg Taylor said the legislature should “protect all students on all campuses from any act of hatred,” not just one group of people.

DeLaney added that “it’s very hard to define antisemitism in today’s environment.”

“It used to be easy. People who were openly critical of Jews — they used words that I haven’t heard in years. That kind of flagrant antisemitism was out there. But now, it’s gotten very, very politicized,” DeLaney said. “I think if we’re trying to define things, we’ve got to find a definition that’s universally acceptable. I think that’s going to be very hard.”

DeLaney cautioned, too, that Indiana’s colleges and universities should have autonomy to determine how best to address antisemitism on their campuses.

“We have to leave some of the decisions to the academic institutions — what they want to accept. The point is that they are communities. I think one of the recent problems we’ve had is that some people, including academics, have forgotten that they’re supervising a community, and every community has a right to standards,” he said. “I don’t think we should impose on every college, every university, every school, a uniform thing.”

“But we need to encourage them to deal with antisemitism and to distinguish between these outrageous statements and threatening statements,” DeLaney continued. “That is a fundamental distinction that we need to make clear. So if you make someone else feel like they are in peril, or their entire race is in peril, then your community, or school, should deal with you — probably in a very nasty way.”

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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.

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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