While the coronavirus impact on K-12 schools is uppermost on everyone’s minds these days, public education saw important gains in the 2020 legislative session, which ended earlier this month.

Improved teacher pay, however — a priority for thousands of teachers who gathered at the Statehouse in November on Red for Ed Day — was not addressed.

Three priorities of education advocates became law or are awaiting the governor’s signature:

• Schools will be held harmless from ILEARN test scores, meaning last year’s test will not adversely impact school grades or teacher evaluations.

• Student test scores would no longer be a mandatory part of teacher evaluations, although schools can choose to use scores in evaluations.

• Fifteen-hour workforce-related externship requirements for teachers are now optional instead of mandatory.

“Those were the three everyone wanted, and educators are happy they got passed,” said State Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute, who is a public school teacher.

Pfaff said she’s also pleased with the passage of a bill she authored, HB 1341, that assists students with disabilities.

It addresses students with “individualized education programs” (IEPs), who graduated with a certificate of completion or left school without graduating from high school.

It tasks a state advisory council to develop a plan to find these former students and discuss their trade skills, apprenticeships and other opportunities to complete requirements for a high school diploma. “We’ll go find them, and then offer more educational opportunities or workforce opportunities so we can get students who want to work to be able to join the workforce,” Pfaff said.

Failure to address teacher pay in the 2020 session was a disappointment. “We’ll work with that during the next budget session,” she said.

Keith Gambill, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, also lamented the legislature’s failure to address teacher pay.

“We asked for $75 million to be used as a good faith down payment on getting necessary funds to our educators ... we know we lose so many great educators the first three to five years, and 80 percent cite pay as a reason for leaving,” he said.

ISTA called for legislators to use some of the state’s budget surplus to start improving teacher salaries.

The governor has said he would wait for recommendations this year for what he calls a “sustainable plan” from a teacher pay commission he appointed early last year; teacher pay would be addressed during the 2021 budget writing session.

State Sen. Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute, said while teacher pay wasn’t addressed during a non-budget year, he anticipates it will be next session. But he also sounded a note of caution — with the coronavirus COVID-19 health care crisis and its serious economic impact, state revenues could be adversely affected.

Other high priorities for public education were addressed, he said. Removing standardized testing from teacher evaluations is something teachers in his district have requested for many years and he’s filed bills calling for it, including this year. “Once leadership supported it, it went right through,” he said.

He authored a teacher collective bargaining bill that would have restored work hours as bargainable and made working conditions and student learning discussable.

“It couldn’t get a hearing,” he said.

ISBA, other groups, oppose HEA 1065

One bill drawing strong opposition from several education groups is HEA 1065, dubbed various tax matters, which has a provision enabling a school district to provide a portion of a successful operating or safety referendum to a charter school in the district’s attendance area.

A letter asking Gov. Eric Holcomb to veto the bill was signed by officials with eight education organizations, including the Indiana School Board Association, the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, ISTA and Indiana Association of School Business Officials. they’ve asked the governor to veto the bill because of that provision.

“We have grave concerns about 1065,” said Terry Spradlin, ISBA executive director. The letter indicates the bill “became the most controversial K-12 education issue of the 2020 session” due to an amendment relating to referendum and charters.

The amendment was only filed and offered late in the session on the second reading deadline, circumventing any public input via a committee hearing, the letter said.

The letter says the bill “is a major change in education and tax policy that is greatly flawed in theory and function.”

It “imposes taxation without representation” because many students at the charter may not live in the district, which means “our school corporations will be taxing its citizens to cover costs for students who don’t live in the community,” the letter states.

While it’s a “may” provision, charter advocates may campaign against the referendum if a school district declines their request for funds, the letter says.

Another concern is that the legislation “will result in even higher taxes” because school districts would need to generate more money to pay for their own programs and services as well as additional monies to charters.

The governor signed HEA 1065 on Saturday.

Addressing other legislation, Spradlin praised hold harmless legislation and elimination of the requirement that standardized test scores be used for teacher evaluations. The governor signed HEA 1002 Saturday. HEA 1002 “is an important bill to restore teacher morale,” he said.

ISBA also supported HEA 1003, aimed at deregulation and increased school flexibility.

“We in the education community say often that the legislature is prolific at regulation,” he said. “In just the last three years, including this session, they’ve passed 108 new laws impacting K-12 public education or school governance. This session alone, 33 new laws passed.”

One provision of HEA 1003 says the State Board of Education may grant an application by a school or group of schools that requests to waive compliance with certain statutes or rules. It could provide some relief to districts from unnecessary or burdensome statutes, Spradlin said.

ISTA opposed HEA 1003 because of the deregulation provisions, which it believes were too broad; there is a list of laws and rules that are not waivable.

HB 1003, authored by Rep. Jack Jordan, R-Bremen, also gives authority to the Indiana State Board of Education to unify and streamline the various mandated teacher trainings required to remain licensed, a provision ISTA supported.

In yet another provision, HEA 1003 changes requirements as far as publication of annual reports in local newspapers. Under the changes, a district can publish a summary of the annual performance report, with a description of how to find and view the full report on the internet.

Virtual charter controversy

Democratic legislators and ISTA say Republicans have not done enough to address problems associated with virtual charters.

A State Board of Accounts investigation found that two large virtual charter schools, Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy [which have since closed], inflated enrollment for years with inactive students, taking in $68 million more in state funding than they should have, according to Chalkbeat.

Millions in public dollars were inappropriately spent on companies connected to school officials, according to SBOA.

State Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, has said the legislature has taken steps in recent sessions, and virtual charter schools must now be managed by a statewide authorizer.

Senate Bill 567, passed in 2019, requires virtual programs to withdraw from a virtual school a student who is a habitual truant. Starting in 2020-21, the state requires all students and their parents to complete a mandatory orientation process before they can enroll in a virtual school. Virtual charter schools must annually report how they determine attendance rates.

This session, HEA 1066 amends the definition of “governmental entity” under the criminal code to include a charter school and the organizer for purposes of criminal provisions that apply to offenses against public administration. It also includes language that tightens tracking of enrollment counts.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at sue.loughlin@tribstar.com Follow Sue on Twitter @TribStarSue.

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