January 31, 2020

Private school proponents tracking flurry of education bills

By Victoria Arthur

He calls it the “Indiana education tornado,” and it is a key element of an equally fast-moving legislative session approaching its halfway point.

John Elcesser, who represents the state’s more than 400 non-public schools (including Indiana’s 175 Catholic schools), says that constant change and new demands on teachers and administrators have led to a flurry of proposed new legislation that lawmakers are considering. The organization he leads, the Indiana Non-Public Education Association (INPEA), is monitoring dozens of bills that have implications for educators and students statewide, including the more than 7,000 teachers and close to 100,000 students at Indiana’s private schools.

“There are so many moving parts because of all the changes over the last five years,” said Elcesser, executive director of the INPEA. “That’s the frustration you hear from educators around the state. Right now we have ILEARN, a new assessment for schools. Beyond that, what is required for students to graduate from high school is changing. The metric involved in calculating a school’s grade is changing. It’s not that some of the change isn’t good, but it’s a lot to manage. And whether you’re in the public or non-public sector, it impacts all of us to some degree.”

As it has since its inception in 1974, the INPEA is working to ensure that the interests of non-public schools are included in the policy discussion, with protecting school choice and religious liberty at the top of the priority list. Once again, the Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC) is a key partner in that effort.

“The Catholic Church is fortunate to have the INPEA assist with much of the heavy lifting when it comes to monitoring, advancing or opposing bills that could have an impact on religious freedom and the delivery of a quality faith-based education to students in our state,” said Angela Espada, executive director of the ICC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “With the great number of education-related bills introduced in this legislative session, our two organizations will continue to work diligently to protect the rights of Catholic and other non-public schools.”

Both groups are currently monitoring 63 education bills in this short, non-budget-year legislative session that Elcesser describes as “fast and furious.” He expects that number to drop dramatically in early February at the crossover point in the session, when bills move from one legislative chamber to the other. Among the bills that lawmakers are fast-tracking are those that echo education goals set by Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb.

“Gov. Holcomb’s education agenda has driven the priority given to the education bills in this legislative session, and a number of his priorities are also our priorities,” Elcesser said.

That includes ensuring that schools and teachers are not penalized this year for lower scores on last year’s new ILEARN standardized test, which replaced ISTEP, the state’s previously used test for student growth and achievement. As expected, the transition period resulted in a drop in scores, with only 37 percent of Indiana students passing both the math and English portions of the new exam in the 2018-19 school year.

House Bill 1001 and a parallel bill, Senate Bill 2, would hold schools harmless this year from the lowered test scores. That means that the A-F letter grade assigned to a school by the state could not be lowered from that of the prior year.

“There were a lot of changes with this new test, including the fact that it was fully online,” Elcesser said. “Everyone anticipated that scores would drop, and they did. Both in the public school and non-public school world alike, there are consequences if schools have chronically low grades. The education community wanted to ensure that schools were not penalized as they transitioned into this new test, and the governor also has clearly stated that this is a priority.”

Another area of focus for Holcomb is eliminating undue bureaucratic burdens on schools and educators, such as excessive reporting, teacher training and paperwork. Lawmakers have filed several bills addressing this type of deregulation, according to Elcesser. One in particular that he is tracking is House Bill 1003, which seeks to streamline teacher training requirements, among other provisions.

“I think the governor is trying to be responsive to the concerns that have been voiced by public, non-public and charter schools, and among the greatest concerns is the list of required trainings for teachers continues to grow every year based on different societal problems,” Elcesser said. “That’s not even looking at professional development to improve instruction. Nobody takes anything away; they just continue to add more and more.

“Deregulation of every kind is of particular importance to non-public schools because they typically have smaller administrative staffs,” Elcesser added. “We have been very supportive of both the governor’s ‘hold harmless’ focus and the deregulation focus.”

Other bills of interest to the INPEA and ICC are Senate Bill 455, which concerns school accreditation, and House Bill 1066, an omnibus bill that includes closing current gaps in school voucher eligibility for siblings and foster children.

As they have for decades, the ICC and INPEA organizations will work together to educate the public and legislators on matters that concern students in every type of school.

“We are stronger together,” Elcesser said.

To get involved in the advocacy efforts of the INPEA, visit www.inpea.org. The website includes access to podcasts, research data, position papers, a legislative action center and other information concerning non-public schools and their mission.

To follow priority legislation of the ICC, visit www.indianacc.org. This website includes access to I-CAN, the Indiana Catholic Action Network, which offers the Church’s position on key issues. Those who sign up for I-CAN receive alerts on legislation moving forward and ways to contact their elected representatives.
 

(Victoria Arthur, a member of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg, is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

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