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Minor Indiana school reforms find last-minute success

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Indiana lawmakers signed off on minor school changes at the close of the 2012 session while reining in broader efforts sought by state schools Superintendent Tony Bennett.

The General Assembly approved new rules for turnaround school operators and set up a commission to study Bennett's new A-F grading system for state schools in the final hours of the session last week. The state's largest teachers union on Monday called the changes a rare victory after being raked in the Statehouse just one year earlier.

"There was just this bipartisan feeling that things were getting too out of control," said Gail Zeheralis, lobbyist for the Indiana State Teacher's Association. "We're grateful the Legislature has now inserted itself into the discussion in a very direct way."

The education flotilla was attached to a broader measure that included more money for state fair victims and a re-working of the state's automatic tax refund after having been scrapped in various forms earlier in the session. Along the way lawmakers dropped efforts to mandate cursive be taught in schools and grandfather in illegal immigrants already enrolled in state universities before the ban on in-state tuition rates began last July.

They also created a joint education commission that will review the new school grading system established by Bennett last year.

"The goal is to make sure there's more transparency and to make sure the Legislature has the ability to question more directly and in a more knowledgeable way," said House Education Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis.

Indiana Department of Education spokeswoman Stephanie Sample said the education measure included some of her department's goals for the session. But she added that one of their top priorities — shortening the time it takes before the state can take over failing schools — did not make the cut.

"The turnaround timeline was a disappointment, because we believe six years is just too long to wait for intervention. We look forward to continuing that conversation in the months ahead," Sample said.

One year earlier Indiana Republicans, led by Bennett and Gov. Mitch Daniels, approved a massive overhaul of the state education system establishing merit-based pay for teachers, setting up a new teacher evaluation system and creating the nation's broadest-based school voucher program.

Bennett came back again during the 2012 session with further changes, including the request to shorten the time before the state takes over a school.

The state received a federal waiver from requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act last month, but much of that waiver was granted dependent on the state following through with its new school evaluation plan.

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