Indiana’s top Republican lawmakers said they plan to prioritize school choice and enact a plan to “reinvent” high school education during the next legislative session.
That will largely involve an expansion of work-based learning opportunities available for high schoolers. The goal is to graduate Hoosier students who are better prepared for the workforce—and increase the likelihood they will stay in Indiana—as the state tries to reverse its dismal college-going rate, as well as other academic impacts following the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Democrats maintain the state needs to invest more in early learning first. They also emphasized that Indiana should offer a child care tax credit or lower the age for compulsory school attendance from seven to five.
Educators said they have different concerns, too.
While lobbying at the Statehouse last week, Indiana’s largest teacher unions lobbied for lawmakers to directly address the ongoing, statewide teacher shortage. They also called for increased funding to public schools, and implored legislators to focus less on “culture war” issues.
Lawmakers can start filing bills now, but no specific legislation has been submitted yet. Republican leaders said they plan to release their specific priority lists sometime next month, before the 2023 legislative session officially kicks off Jan. 9.
GOP lawmakers want better-prepared high school graduates
Speaking at a preview event with the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said his chamber will primarily focus on their plan to “reinvent” high school by expanding work- and job-based opportunities that count towards a high school diploma.
“We have to adjust to a new economy,” Huston said, adding that Indiana’s current high school model puts too much emphasis on traditional higher education.
Huston said details are still being hashed out, but hinted that the plan could involve replacing certain courses, like calculus, with different work-based learning.
Indiana’s education leaders are already in the process of revamping the state’s academic standards by cutting back current requirements and streamlining the content that teachers are required to cover in a school year. The state’s education department was tasked with the standards overhaul by lawmakers earlier this year.
Last month, Indiana’s bipartisan interim education committee additionally approved multiple education bills expected to be filed during the 2023 legislative session, including several that emphasize work-based learning experiences.
As the General Assembly enters a new budget year, Huston said he also expects the legislature to approve an increase in K-12 funding, “while expanding options for kids to attend the school of their choice.”
“Indiana has always been a leader in parental choice and empowerment and we are going to build on that success,” Huston continued. “Every Hoosier parent should have an opportunity to send their child a school of their choice.”
Lawmakers approved a $1.9 billion increase for schools in 2021 that was meant to help districts increase teacher pay. But school leaders around the state are calling for another funding boost to help educate students in poverty, English language learners, and those with disabilities.
Will debate over ‘hot-button’ education bills return?
Huston further told reporters he would support another legislative attempt to make school board elections partisan. A bill that would have required ballots to include school board candidates’ partisan affiliations died in committee following widespread criticism in the last legislative session.
Republican Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray was not as supportive: “I’m not sure the system is broken where it is right now.”
Still, GOP leaders were not clear about whether they’ll consider another “curriculum transparency” bill. A contentious, unsuccessful curriculum bill that sought to place broad restrictions on teaching about racism and political topics failed in the 2022 session.
Huston said he hasn’t “heard specifics” about another bill of that sort. Bray said he also hasn’t yet seen any bills that seek to enact new curriculum restrictions, noting that lawmakers “already had an extremely robust conversation about that last year.”
Democratic House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta disapproved of such controversial bills altogether, saying he would rather see legislators “give social issues a rest this session.”
“It doesn’t do our state any good to be in the national news over those issues,” GiaQuinta said.
Teacher unions push back
Representatives of the Indiana State Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers of Indiana maintain the state’s disinvestment from public education in favor of school choice has perpetuated the statewide teacher shortage and left traditional public schools unable to cover the costs of educating all students.
Keith Gambill, president of the ISTA, the state’s largest teacher’s union, stressed that the biggest need is for the state to tackle teacher and support staff shortages.
“Too many students are in schools where decision-makers have driven away quality educators by failing to provide competitive salaries and support, disrespecting the profession and placing extraordinary pressure on individual educators to do more and more with less and less,” Gambill said last week during a virtual news conference.
He additionally called the GOP’s plan to “reinvent” high school “pretty words.”
“If we want to make sure we are preparing our students for the workforce, we have to make sure each and every child has access to great educators,” Gambill said.
Union leaders with AFT Indiana, which represents educators in Anderson, Gary, East Chicago and elsewhere in the state, rallied at the Statehouse on Tuesday for Organization Day, where they called for lawmakers to increase state education aid and set aside partisan politics.
“It has led to what people call a massive teacher shortage—but I would call it a massive teacher exodus,” said Randy Harrison, vice president of AFT Indiana, referring to the General Assembly’s recent discourse on “culture war” bills, and a lack of funding for public schools.
Speaking at the AFT event, Sen. Fady Qaddoura, D-Indianapolis, called on lawmakers to dip into the state’s $6 billion in reserves for public schools and teachers.
“It’s fiscally irresponsible to be sitting on billions of dollars and neglect education,” Qaddoura said.
Jennifer McCormick, Indiana’s former superintendent of public instruction, also said the state needs to pay teachers “what they are worth.”
“We can pat ourselves on the back and say we’ve had historical funding but we’ve been funding so incredibly low over the years that, that historical funding is going to have to continue for over a decade,” McCormick said.