News and Tribune

July 23, 2013

‘Back to school’ means new legislative mandates

More than a dozen new laws tackle society issues, funding

By MAUREEN HAYDEN
CNHI

INDIANAPOLIS — Figuring out ways to cut down on gang violence may seem like work for the police, but this coming school year, teachers, students and administrators throughout in Indiana will be enlisted in the effort.

A new law requiring every school district develop policies and practices to deal with teenage gangs is among at least a dozen new education-related laws with long-term impact that went into effect earlier this month.

Those new laws range from changes in the school funding formula to temporary relief for some schools from the impact of the property tax caps. But also on the list are laws that require schools to implement tougher anti-bullying policies, do more to crack down on chronic absenteeism, and boost efforts to get more parents involved with their children’s education.

“Over the years, schools have taken on so many issues besides reading, writing, and arithmetic, that it’s become an ongoing expectation,” said Dennis Costerison, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials. “If something is going on in society, it’s going to be dealt with by the schools.”

Schools will have plenty to deal with in coming months, according to a new report by Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, known as CEEP. The center identified the most impactful school-related legislation of the past session, with help from a diverse group of education leaders, including Costerison.

On the list is the biennial budget, which increased K-12 school funding overall by 2 percent in fiscal year 2014 and 1 percent in fiscal year 2015, for a total of about $6.7 billion. But about 40 percent of local school districts won’t see any increase in funding over the next two years and some will see a decline.

That’s because of the state’s school funding formula, adopted two years ago, eliminates the past supports for small school districts or districts with declining enrollments. The funding changes, being phased in over several years, are causing some schools to cut programs and personnel as they adjust to the new funding reality.

“For schools, the (state) budget bill is always first and foremost importance,” said Terry Spradlin, executive director of CEEP.

The importance seemed elevated this year, as the legislature moved to expand school vouchers for low-income families who want to send their children to private schools, using state support. Among other things, the new law waives the requirement that income-eligible students living in failing school districts attend a public school for year before applying for a voucher, and it makes it easier for children with special needs and for the siblings of students already in the voucher program to get a voucher.

Paul DiPerna, with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, hails the expanded voucher program and predicts it will lead to the improvement of public schools that will want compete for those students.

But Todd Bess, head of the Indiana Association of School Principals, sees “far-reaching implications” in how the program was expanded, by easing eligibility to cover more students without capping the final numbers. And Frank Bush, with the Indiana School Boards Association, also fears the expanded voucher program will cut into public school funding: “This is particularly troubling in a time when even more is expected of public school services,” he said.

Some of the other laws passed by the legislature last session that will impact the state’s K-12 schools this coming school year:

• Senate Enrolled Act 1, known as the School Resource Officers and School Safety law, which establishes the “secured school fund” to help schools hire police officers, conduct threat assessments for school buildings, and purchase safety equipment and technology. Before the law was passed, legislators removed a controversial provision in the bill requiring at least one staff member be trained in using and carrying a weapon on school grounds.

• Senate Enrolled Act 338, which addresses the problem of chronic absenteeism in schools. It broadens the definition of “chronic absenteeism” and “habitual truant” to include more students that routinely don’t show up for school, and it requires the Department of Education to provide local schools with more resources and guidance to deal with students who don’t show up for class — even those with excused absences. A critical part of the bill also requires schools to report their absentee rates and for that information to be included in their annual performance reports which are public.

• Senate Enrolled Act 352, the “criminal gang” law that requires schools to start tracking criminal gang activity in their schools and report it to the state. The law is to be phased in over several years, with help from the state Department of Education. It includes, for example, a requirement that compels schools to train students, faculty and staff in how to recognize and report criminal gang activity. By 2017, the state DOE will be required to report to the governor the level of gang activity in the state’s K-12 schools.

• House Enrolled Act 1423, also known as the “anti-bullying” bill. Indiana already requires schools to have policies in place to discourage the bullying of vulnerable students, but this new law significantly strengthens those existing provisions. Among other things, it requires schools to establish procedures for reporting incidents of bullying and to adopt disciplinary rules around bullying, both in and out of school. The mother of an Indiana teenager who committed suicide after being bullied by classmates testified for the bill.

• Senate Enrolled Act 517, which permits some school corporations that are financially strapped because of property tax caps to transfer money from their general fund to the transportation fund or school bus replacement fund.

• House Enrolled Act 1427, which pushes the “pause” button on full implementation of the Common Core State Standards, a national set of academic standards adopted by Indiana in 2010 for its K-12 schools. The law requires the legislature to hold hearings this summer and fall on the impact of Common Core, including its fiscal impact on schools and the state. In stalling the Common Core standards, it also temporarily keeps in place the use of ISTEP as the state’s high-stakes standardized assessment test for students in elementary and middle schools.

— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com