Holcomb lays out agenda focused on education and workforce

By: - January 8, 2024 11:45 am

Gov. Eric Holcomb unveils his governing agenda Monday Jan. 8, 2024. (Casey Smith/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

In his final go, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb wants to double down on K-12 literacy initiatives and bolster workforce training but won’t seek specific policy related to growing concerns around Medicaid spending.

His reading plan could result in holding thousands more third-graders back a year in school.

The Republican governor on Monday unveiled his 2024 agenda, the last in his eight-year term. His policy goals additionally emphasize a need for expanded pre-K and childcare voucher eligibility, as well as increased access to disaster relief at the local level.

Specifically, Holcomb’s agenda targets earlier access to IREAD testing and ensuring Hoosier students are mastering foundational literacy skills. The latest reading scores showed that one in five Hoosier third graders continue to struggle. 

Gov. Eric Holcomb speaks to reporters after unveiling his legislative agenda on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, at an Indianapolis school. (Casey Smith/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Currently, the IREAD exam is only required in third grade. The governor’s administration is hoping to require testing in second grade, too. Doing so could help teachers and parents better identify struggling students and implement additional supports — such as through summer school or after-school tutoring — before kids get too far behind.

Students who fail the standardized exam can already be held back, but there are exceptions if a child is disabled or an English-language learner.

State officials — including Holcomb — maintain that too many Indiana third graders who can’t adequately read are advancing to the fourth grade. His agenda seeks to tighten up the state’s retention policy to require third grade students who fail IREAD to be held back for at least one year, starting in 2025.

None of Holcomb’s priorities would require lawmakers to reopen the biennial state budget during the short legislative session, however.

“Ultimately, this (agenda) will be very interactive … looking through a lens of our customers, citizens and local leaders — how they may access all the programs that the legislature, year after year after year, appropriates dollars to. These are programs that really do make a difference,” he said during an agenda announcement at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually impaired in Indianapolis. “Whether it’s a local government or philanthropic organizations or local leaders, some don’t know about some of the programs. And so, how can we better connect chambers, local leaders, etcetera, in a very easy way?”

Indiana’s General Assembly reconvened Monday for the start of the 2024 session.

Legislative leaders said previously they’re not taking on new and controversial subjects, promising a “quieter” non-budget session.

While Holcomb’s agenda is closely aligned with goals expressed last month by Republican legislative leaders, his policy recommendations leave out issues like Medicaid reimbursement rates, gambling, chronic absenteeism and regulation of large water transfers.

Improving literacy

An administrative rule — with the force of law — dictates Indiana’s existing third grade retention policy.

According to data from the Indiana Department of Education, in 2023, 13,840 third-graders did not pass I-READ-3. Of those, 5,503 received an exemption and 8,337 did not. Of those without an exemption, 95% moved onto 4th grade while only 412 were retained.

Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner said Monday that adding a legislative piece will make clear what retention means, and include “the proactive approaches” schools should implement in kindergarten, first and second grades.

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

“This will just really add clarity for the state and also help us stay laser focused on the fact that we have to have students reading by the end of third grade,” Jenner continued, although she said the state board of education could make changes on its own, if it had to. “But I think there is a significant appetite with both the House and the Senate to look at potential legislation options.”

Holcomb’s goal is that 95% of students in third grade can read proficiently by 2027. State officials said they can still meet that mark — but only if immediate changes and early-warning systems are put in place.

A pilot program spearheaded by the state education department has already helped hundreds of Indiana schools administer IREAD-3 to second graders as a way to help parents and teachers determine if reading interventions are needed for younger students before they take the exam. 

The 2022-23 school year was the second year schools could opt-in. The test — likely to rebranded as “IREAD” — was taken by almost 46,000 second graders. That’s up from about 20,000 second graders who tested the year before.

“It is a very, very popular option for schools because it provides whether the child can read, whether they’re on track, or whether they’re potentially at risk, and it provides that data at a younger age,” Jenner said. “That then can be used by the parent and the teacher to best support that child’s learning in the future.”

State officials noted that many students are expected to receive additional reading help during the summer. 

Funding for summer school — equal to about $18.4 million per year under the current state budget — is mostly going toward students taking physical education and health courses in the summer, Jenner said.

“What an opportunity we have to better leverage that funding on the students who are not able to read or may not have numeracy skills,” she emphasized, adding that, for now, policymakers want to “focus on the current budget line that we have,” rather than appropriating new funds.

Although Jenner, Holcomb and Republican state legislative leaders have said that high rates of absenteeism are likely contributing to the state’s dismal literacy rates, policy to address student attendance and chronic absenteeism is not included in Holcomb’s agenda.

The latest Indiana data shows that about 40% of students statewide missed 10 or more school days last year, and nearly one in five were “chronically absent” for at least 18 days.

Other items on Holcomb’s agenda include:

  • A statewide review of curricular materials expenses, following the state’s 2023 commitment to cover textbook fees in K-12 schools. Jenner suggested Monday that some schools increased their curricular fees this academic year, prompting the state to investigate why reimbursement rates were higher than originally expected.
  • The creation of a task force to review bail reform efforts and related impacts on public safety, like violent crime and recidivism rates.
  • Tasking Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) to work with various stakeholders to create a “Multisector Plan for Aging” — a 10-year guide to help the state navigate its aging population.
  • A call for FSSA and other state agencies to collaborate on a plan to improve support services and treatment options for Hoosier youth struggling with complex mental and behavioral health challenges.

Even so, Holcomb said Monday that he will “participate in the discussion that the legislators might have” about attendance.

“I plead with parents to not underestimate the impact that your child not being in school has on them adversely, long-term. … We’re past COVID now, and so parents need to understand the adverse impact of keeping their child out of school,” the governor said. “There just is a correlation. I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to realize that the less time you’re (in school), the less you’re going to learn.”

“We want to make sure that in this discussion of chronic absenteeism, that what we’re doing is going to make a difference,” Holcomb continued. “And I will continue to use my platform to plead with parents, begging them to make sure if their child can be in school, they need to be.”

The governor’s priorities also call for a mandatory computer science course to be completed by students before graduating high school. He additionally wants to task Indiana’s public colleges and universities with offering more three-year bachelor’s degrees, and make it easier for students to earn two-year associate degrees at the state’s four-year institutions.

Expanding child care

A multi-part plan to expand early childhood education and child care options is also high on Holcomb’s agenda.

The governor’s plan aims to increase the number of child care and early education providers across Indiana by adding credentialing training to state-sponsored grant programs and making more employees of child care entities eligible for On My Way Pre-K and Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) vouchers. 

Holcomb’s administration further wants to reduce the minimum age of caregivers; from 21 to 18 for infant and toddler caregivers, and from 18 to 16 for supervised caregivers in school-aged classrooms.

“We know that to accommodate more kiddos in early learning environments, we need to have more workers there,” Holcomb said. “Dropping age limits down — that doesn’t mean dropping standards down. We think with the proper training and standards in place and oversight … you should qualify and be eligible to work there.”

Accessing disaster relief

Holcomb said Monday he will also work with legislators to help Hoosiers gain easier access to funds in the wake of both man-made and natural disasters.

Broadly, that means increasing the amount of relief dollars individual counties can receive, in addition to making it easier for individual Hoosiers to access aid.

The governor’s plan includes a proposal to allow some dollars from the State Disaster Relief Fund (SDRF) to help local units implement hazard mitigation plans that assist in protecting against future damages. Mitigation could come in the form of newly-built tornado shelters or participation in the National Flood Insurance Program, for example.

Counties with such plans in place could also qualify for increased reimbursement after a disaster.

Holcomb’s administration is also seeking to bump the maximum potential award for individual assistance from $10,000 to $25,000. Those funds can help Hoosiers with post-disaster damages and debris removal, among other needs.

Holcomb said he’s confident the state can afford to increase available aid, noting that Indiana’s disaster relief fund is financed by firework sales.

There would still be caps on how much could be dispersed, however, which officials said helps ensure the state fund isn’t depleted.


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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.

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