The basics of education in Indiana

The basics of early childhood education in Indiana: A new era begins

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
A preschooler in the Reggio program at IPS School 60.

(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.)

In 2011, Indiana’s then-Gov. Mitch Daniels made education a major focus of his legislative agenda, unveiling four major bills that tackled many education hot buttons — teachers, unions, charter schools, and vouchers. But, as advocates quickly pointed out, Daniels had overlooked another favored policy: early childhood education.

Proponents of early childhood education argue there is strong evidence that improved early learning can have long term benefits for children, making it more likely they will succeed in school and in life.

But Daniels and his aides continued not to give attention to early childhood even amid complaints, arguing at the time that the state simply didn’t have the money to offer state aid to reduce the cost of education options for young children.

Since then, Indiana has begun to take small steps toward improving preschool. A small pilot program to pay for preschool for poor children in five counties began in 2015, meaning the Hoosier state was no longer one of nine that spent no state dollars for direct aid to help children attend preschool. While two-thirds of states require children to attend kindergarten, Indiana still has not budged to make school attendance mandatory before age 7, or first grade.

As a result, far fewer children in the state attend preschool than in other states. Indiana in 2011 had about 34,000 kids attending public preschools through federal programs. That’s only about 20 percent of preschool-aged children. By comparison, that percentage in states that have prioritized preschool, like Oklahoma and West Virginia, was more than 70 percent.

But there are signs of a new attitude toward early childhood education.

Besides the pilot program, the state has added more aid to support school districts that offer kindergarten since 2011, expanding access for those who voluntarily enroll their children. In Indianapolis, Mayor Greg Ballard pushed through a city-supported preschool program and new Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has pledged to support the expansion of the district’s preschool offerings.

Here’s a look at some of the main areas undergoing change:

Kindergarten expansion

In 2011, about 14 percent of Indiana children did not start school until first grade, while most states required compulsory attendance of kindergarten. In the Midwest, Illinois was the only other state that did not require kindergarten attendance.

Districts that did offer kindergarten generally only offered half-day programs. Some charged parents tuition for a second half-day if they preferred their child to attend kindergarten for a full school day. Other districts tapped a state grant program to offer full-day kindergarten. And a third group made it a priority to fund a full-day program on their own.

But in 2012, Daniels moved to address kindergarten by announcing his support for a plan to make full-day kindergarten available to any families that wanted it for free.

Daniels said the state’s economy was recovering from the 2008 economic recession and that tax collections had brought an unexpected surplus. He proposed doubling the state support for full-day kindergarten to $190 million. A legislative bill to accomplish that also added a prohibition blocking school districts from charging tuition for kindergarten. After the bill passed, full-day kindergarten enrollment jumped by 19 percent to more than 66,000 children.

Some school districts still expressed concern about the costs, which were covered in the form of grants, rather than through the state’s school funding formula. The grant program, districts argued, was more vulnerable to being reduced or eliminated in the biennial budget-making process than the school funding formula. Districts also asked for per-pupil funding for kindergarten to be equalized with the per pupil aid schools receive for older children. State aid for a student in kindergarten is half the among for those in grades 1 to 12.

Even with gains in kindergarten in 2012, advocates for early learning also pointed out that Indiana continued to offer no state aid for preschool. But an effort to change that came the following year.

Stronger health and safety standards

While Indiana spends no money to directly support preschool, the U.S. Department of Education spends $172 million on government vouchers to Hoosier families each year to help pay for preschool. But those vouchers have very few requirements attached. Recipients can spend them on most preschools in the state, and regulation has traditionally been lax. Before 2012, the state had few requirements, or even standards of health and safety, for preschools that receive vouchers.

An Indianapolis Star series in 2013 found that at least 21 children had died between 2009 and 2013 in day cares and preschools, including unlicensed centers and homes. The series found Indiana had more than 150,000 children attending 4,000 centers, costing the state $2.5 million to license and inspect them. About 660 of those centers were unlicensed and religiously affiliated, with even fewer health, safety and education requirements.

In 2013, the Indiana legislature addressed some of the quality concerns, passing a bill requiring day care centers to have discipline policies and meet basic health and safety standards to receive federal funds. The centers also were required to conduct national background checks on paid and volunteer workers.

A separate effort to offer tuition support to help low income children attend preschool stalled in 2013, however.

Republicans in the Indiana House put the creation of a state-funded preschool pilot program among their top agenda items. A bill authored by Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, the chairman of the House Education Committee, had the support of House speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis.

The bill proposed a pilot program to support preschool tuition for about 1,000 high-poverty children in five counties at an estimated cost of $7 million annually. The program aimed to establish whether the programs aided the students academically. Behning said if the program demonstrated that students benefited, the state could consider expanding it to more students in the future.

The bill quickly passed the House, with a strong 93-6 vote in favor. But it soon ran into trouble in the Senate, where the education committee chairman, Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said only three of 12 members of the committee favored the bill when he polled them.

The Senate dropped the pilot program, rewriting the bill to establish a small $2 million grant program instead.

Kruse said the potential cost of the pilot program, were it to expand, was a concern for the committee, which felt preschool was not among the state’s highest education priorities. Early education advocates came away from the 2013 legislative session discouraged that the promising move toward state aid for preschool had failed.

Preschool finally passes

In late 2013, the idea of state aid for preschool got an important new ally in Pence, Daniels’ Republican successor. Pence proclaimed preschool to be among his highest priorities for the 2014 legislative session.

But at first, legislators did not join him. Halfway through the legislative session, the bill to create a preschool pilot seemed dead. But Pence worked behind the scenes with legislative leaders to win approval for a bill to establish the state’s first program to offer state-paid tuition support to poor children who attend preschool.

Lawmakers placed the program in the budget of the Family and Social Services Administration and allowed the agency to keep up to $10 million Pence had ordered it to cut due to poor revenue projections so it could use that money to fund the program. The bill allowed preschool providers or Family and Social Services Administration to match another $5 million in grants or private contributions. The entire program, therefore, could spend $15 million in public and private money on tuition support for children to attend preschools.

The bill established an income eligibility limit for a family four to $30,289 annually. For families, tuition aid would range between $2,500 and $6,800 a year depending on income. The pilot could serve as many as 4,000 four-year-olds in five counties. It is only limited by budget. There is no cap on the number of participants. Among the provisions that were added to the bill was a requirement that parents of children in the program agree their preschools’ parental involvement requirements.

The program is expected to launch in January in Marion County and four other counties.

Separately, praise for Pence’s preschool win was muted in late 2014 by a controversy around his decision not to apply for up to $80 million in federal aid for preschool, which shocked some of his preschool allies. Pence said he wanted to avoid federal intrusion into the state’s preschool efforts.

Expansion in Indianapolis

Separately from the state debate over preschool, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard announced his plan for the city to invest $25 million over five years to support preschool for poor children. With private matching dollars, the entire program would spend $50 million on preschool in the city.

But Democrats on the City-County Council balked at the mayor’s plan to eliminate a tax credit to raise money to fund the preschool program, which they said would cost school districts money. Ultimately a compromise was worked out and a slimmed down program was approved in early 2015.

When the program debuted in the summer, demand for spots was huge.

Some of the state’s top preschool advocates and experts say several practical hurdles stand in the way of a wider expansion of preschool. For example, they say there simply aren’t enough high-quality preschools — and adding more will depend heavily on the state’s ability to attract quality preschool teachers, train them effectively and keep them in the workforce.

-Updated December 2015


After almost 10 years of changes to Indiana classrooms, ESSA’s headed your way. Here’s what you should know about the new federal law.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

This year, Indiana education officials are focused on shifting education policy to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in late 2015.

But given Indiana’s history, ESSA is likely to be just the latest in a long line of education policy changes.

What started with a new schools chief focused on shaking things up in 2008 turned into major legislative changes that gave Indiana its oft-cited charter school and voucher programs in 2011.

Around the same time, Common Core standards burst on the scene, highlighting Indiana once again as an early adopter and — just a few years later — as one of the first states to jump ship. Battles over replacing ISTEP ramped up in late 2015, followed in rapid succession by an election resulting in a new governor and an upset in the race for state superintendent.

Throw ESSA into the mix, and it’s safe to say the last decade of Indiana education policy has been tumultuous. What does this new law mean for Indiana? We answer some of those questions below.

Where did ESSA come from?

U.S. lawmakers passed the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in late 2015 to replace the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

The goal, in part, was to remedy a number of complaints around NCLB. State and federal officials have talked up how ESSA is supposed to give states more autonomy and remove NCLB’s rigid performance goals.

Advocates hope ESSA will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

What does ESSA mean for testing?

As it turns out, not that much — most of Indiana’s testing changes come down from the state, not the feds.

Indiana’s ISTEP test would have fulfilled most of the federal requirements, but the state trashed ISTEP earlier this spring in favor of a new test (still in the works) that will be given for the first time in 2019 — “ILEARN.”

For elementary and middle school students, ILEARN will be “computer-adaptive,” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers. In high school, students would be expected to pass end-of-course assessments in Algebra, ninth-grade biology, 10th-grade English and 12th-grade U.S. Government.

The state’s plan also includes a chance to pursue giving state tests in other languages. So far, Spanish would be the focus.

How does this affect A-F grades?

Congress passing the Every Student Succeeds Act collided almost directly with Indiana’s overhauled A-F grade model, used for the first time in 2016.

Although the new model checks many boxes when it comes to new ESSA requirements, there’s still work that needs to be done.

Indiana’s new A-F model replaces one that centered primarily around ISTEP test scores. A-F grades still factor in test scores higher than other measures, but they no longer reflect just test passing rates. How students improve on tests from year to year is also included and weighted equally with passing rates.

Beginning this school year, A-F grades will include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

What about low-performing schools?

So the timeline doesn’t change — public schools can still only get four Fs in a row before the state steps in. But once they do, that’s where the process differs starting in 2018-19.

Going forward, two new categories will replace priority schools and focus schools. Two new ones will be introduced: “targeted support” and “comprehensive support.”

At schools receiving targeted support, certain groups of students — ethnic groups, English learners, low-income students or students with disabilities — would score in the bottom 5 percent of state test-takers for at least two years in a row.

Comprehensive support is similar to what are now priority schools — those that fall in the bottom 5 percent of passing state tests; any school that receives an F grade; or any high school where the four-year graduation rate is lower than 67 percent.

If a school gets a C grade or better for two years in a row, it is no longer categorized as needing comprehensive support. Schools in targeted support have five years to earn two consecutive C grades.

Doesn’t the graduation rate change, too?

Unfortunately, yes.

As early as fall of 2018, the general diploma could cease to count in the graduation rate the state is now required to report to the federal government.

The federal calculation will likely cause rates to drop and school A-F grades to take a hit because general diploma students students would no longer be considered graduates to the feds.

Students can still earn a general diploma — it just can’t factor into state accountability grades. ESSA requires states to count graduates that earn the diploma that a majority of students get or one that is more rigorous, but not one that is less.

What happens next?

There are still some major questions lingering over how the new A-F grade components will play out next year, particularly when it comes to dual credit classes and changes to graduation rate.

Those issues won’t get solved right away, if only because the Indiana State Board of Education must officially approve any A-F grade system changes, which won’t happen until after the ESSA draft plan is completed.

The plan must be submitted to federal education officials in September. First it gets a review from the governor, who can choose to endorse it or not — no formal approval is required.

Read more of Indiana’s ESSA coverage here.


The basics of...

The basics of Jennifer McCormick: Political newcomer struggles to set herself apart

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick speaks during a 2016 campaign event.

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for state superintendent. A more detailed story about Jennifer McCormick’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about Glenda Ritz, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

As the political newcomer to this year’s race for Indiana state superintendent, Republican Jennifer McCormick has had to spend a lot of time telling voters who she isn’t.

She isn’t Glenda Ritz, she’s said, emphasizing that as a former teacher and principal who has spent the last 12 years as a top administrator in the Yorktown school district, she has experience as a steady, organized manager that she says Ritz lacks.

And she says she isn’t Tony Bennett, the education reform-darling who lost in a huge upset to Ritz in 2012, either.

In fact, McCormick falls somewhere between the two: She’s a career public school educator and district leader with policies not entirely unlike Ritz’s. But she also has the backing of the Republican party and advocates who’ve pushed to expand charter schools and private school vouchers.

Although McCormick has been more supportive of charter schools and vouchers than Ritz has been, the Yorktown superintendent says she’s concerned about the way school choice efforts divert money from public schools and vehemently denies suggestions that she would want to see them expand.

On the campaign trail, McCormick has tried to steer the conversation away from controversial policy matters toward what she sees as her strong suit: Her years of leadership running schools and districts.

The New Castle native has spent her career in Yorktown, a traditional public school district in northeastern Indiana that enrolls about 2,500 students K-12. Her school district is wealthier, whiter and faces few of the challenges that confront urban and rural districts across the state.

Yorktown school board president Tom Simpson said McCormick has worked to provide more computers and tablets to students and has made a point of ensuring that teachers are trained to use and teach with the devices. She’s also worked over the years to help the district adapt to its growing population.

How she’ll govern

It’s still not clear what kind of relationship McCormick would have with lawmakers if elected. Although her policies don’t necessarily line up with those of Republican legislative leaders, the fact that she brings none of Ritz’s baggage after four years of clashes with Republican Gov. Mike Pence could ease tensions and lead to smoother working relationships.

But McCormick’s lack of policy experience and adamant statements that she won’t engage in “politics” could also mean she underestimates the work needed guide her vision through the sometimes-thorny Indiana legislature.

Plus, should both she and John Gregg, the Democrat running for governor, prevail, there’d once again be a political division between the state’s top education leader and top executive, who is responsible for appointing the majority of members to the state board of education.

On the issues

McCormick’s positions on many state education issues are similar to those of her opponent. She largely agrees with Ritz on the need for an A-F grade overhaul, more school funding, and adding support and pay for teachers.

Here’s a rundown of her positions:

Vouchers. McCormick said while she supports the power of parents to choose the best school for their children, she’s not interested in expanding programs that divert money from public schools.

Testing. While Ritz has called for a new kind of test that would be given to students in chunks throughout the year and provide feedback to teachers, McCormick said she would be in favor of adopting the SAT, or something like it, for high school students and keeping a simple, ISTEP-like test for elementary and middle school students.

Preschool. While Ritz has campaigned strongly for a “universal” preschool plan for all Indiana four year-olds, funded with what she anticipates would be $150 million per year from the state’s budget, plus federal and private grants, McCormick has called for a more conservative approach — at least at first. She says the state should prioritize students who are struggling or from low-income families rather than offer pre-K to kids with more resources.