The Indiana General Assembly is gearing up to go back into session in less than a month. Education will once again occupy a large amount of its time. K-12 education is expected to take up more than half of the state's two-year budget. Lawmakers are looking to make changes on everything from pre-kindergarten education to new testing to replacing the ISTEP exam.

Perhaps one of the more interesting potential battles will have very little to do with spending and a lot to do with politics. During the last four sessions the Legislature and the governor took several steps to attempt to limit the power of the Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction. Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, was the superintendent during this time.

The Republican-led General Assembly and Republican Governor Mike Pence tried several things to curb Ritz's ability to affect policy and funding decisions. The governor went so far as to appoint a totally separate hand-picked board that reviewed many education decisions before they went to the State Department of Education. The battles led many to bring back a call for the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Indiana to stop being an elected position and the job instead be one appointed by the governor.

"I expect that conversation to take place during this session," said State Senator Eric Bassler (R-Washington), who sits on the Senate Education Committee. "There has been some discussion about making that change, but some considered it inappropriate because it looked like it would be a partisan discussion. Now, it will not have that political element to it."

The political element ended on election night when Jennifer McCormick defeated Ritz in her run for re-election.

ISTEP problems

While the hated ISTEP exam is supposed to be no longer used after next spring, lawmakers may keep it around for at least another year.

"We need to solve the ISTEP problem," said Bassler. "There is a committee that has studied it for the last six months and they have put out their recommendations for a new test. Now, the problem is that it has become a timing issue. It would be impossible to carry out the process and have something that school systems can prepare for next year. I suspect there will be one more year of ISTEP and some kind of required test after that."

The ISTEP test has changed over the years in terms of scope and usage. At its inception it was used as a diagnostic tool by schools to measure how students compared to state averages. It also gave local school officials information, and even funding, for remediation to bring struggling students up to speed.

Over the years the test became a measuring stick for entire school corporations. The pressure for teaching to the test increased as funding for individual teachers and schools became tied directly to results. The test also began to reflect changes in curriculum and education theories. Year after year, as these theories changed on the state level, the local schools were left to try to teach to a test that had set standards. Sometimes the changes were at the last minute. During all of that time the test was also tied to accountability.

"We are going to be dealing with a lot of unsettled education issues," said State Rep. Mike Braun (R-Jasper), who sits on the House Education Committee. "We need to take a hard look at pre-K proposals and see what we can afford. We also need to work more on accountability."

Local school officials have long questioned the ISTEP test and the high stakes that went with it.

"ISTEP is just the elephant in the room," said Barr-Reeve School Superintendent Travis Madison while attending a legislative preview meeting with school superintendents from all over Indiana. "We know a new test is coming and there have been recommendations made. The biggest thing we can do as educators is to be proactive. I hope they (legislators) listen to the teachers and others in education."

Other Education Issues

Madison believes one of the biggest problems in Indiana is that lawmakers are trying to make a one-size-fits-all education system for a state where there are a lot of different needs and desires.

"Every child is different, every classroom is different, every school is different, every community is different and they all want different things," he said. "We need a test that we can use as a tool to evaluate the student. It should not be about funding the school system or the teachers' pay. The test is being used for too many of the wrong things. What is worse is that we have found that it really just measures a student's background, where they grow up and none of the things the state wants."

Braun also believes that the state might need to take a hard look at the CHOICE program that has opened state funding for private and charter schools around Indiana.

"The CHOICE program has been a statewide solution applied to a handful of problem schools," he said. "It has wound up hurting everyone. The approach doesn't make sense. It would be like me changing all of the policies in my company because we have a problem in Houston."

"I really don't expect the CHOICE program to get scaled back," said Madison. "What I would like to see is for the private and charter schools to play by the same oversite and rules that public schools face. If they are going to accept public dollars, then they need to have the same transparency public schools deal with. We have also heard that many of these schools are taking on students, getting the tuition support checks, and then when it is time for testing, they are sending those that may be struggling back to the public school. That isn't right."

Braun was a long-time member of the Jasper School Board before he ran for state representative.

"I still feel we have a problem in that we don't get enough of the money appropriated by the Legislature into the classroom," he said. "I think that may be something we will try to address."

Madison says the best way to address the issue of dollars making it into the classroom is to be realistic about the regulations put on schools.

"Right now there are 20 bills pending for the general assembly that contain unfunded mandates for schools," he said. "The more that is asked from the school, the more reports, the more assessments, the more gathering of information, the more we have to spend on administrative and other costs. What we are required to do may be very good and very important. That isn't the problem. The problem is it takes time and money. I don't have administrators and teachers aides and other staff just sitting around and looking for something to do."

School leaders around the state feel that somehow they have been caught the last several years in a disconnect where state lawmakers are trying to reform education without taking into account the everyday knowledge that teachers, administrators, and school board members have. They are looking to try and change that.

"I feel there has been a disconnect in the past, but it is getting better," said Madison. "I know a lot of people in education are reaching out to their local legislators. I am trying to speak with Representative Braun and Senator Bassler. I hope they listen to the people in the trenches. I also hope they realize that all of the schools can't be lumped together. Ultimately, I am accountable to the Barr-Reeve School Board and the children in the district, not some senator in the doughnut counties around Indianapolis."

With the budget under review for the next two years, Madison is hopeful legislators will find a better way to fund schools.

"Every time there is a budget session the issue at the forefront is the funding for schools," said Madison. "We realize they have a lot of pressures being placed on them from a lot of directions. I just hope they can finally fix the school-funding system, because as it is now, it is broken."

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