Recapping your education-heavy short legislative session

Lawmakers leading up to the 2024 session of the Indiana General Assembly advertised this short session as just that ­– short, “quiet,” and “less aggressive.” However, we knew going in that lawmakers had assembled a litany of hefty priorities they wanted to tackle in the education realm.

As Secretary of Education Katie Jenner predicted in December, 2024 may have been billed as a “slower session” for some areas, but “not for education.” That quickly proved to be the case as session began in January with dozens of substantive education bills earning significant air time at the State House.

We saw education issues top priority lists for both House and Senate Republicans ­– including literacy, antisemitism, and expanding work-based learning programs. Some unexpected controversies also arose from the higher education world, as majority lawmakers attempted to “modernize” tenure at public universities.

Reading, Antisemitism Bills Take Priority

Tackling Indiana’s dismal reading proficiency rates among young students topped the agendas for both the House and Senate, as well as Governor Eric Holcomb (R) and Dr. Jenner at the Indiana Department of Education.

And in their eyes, they see the policies under the now-signed SEA 1-2024 as a major accomplishment in tackling the issue of literacy. Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray (R) of Martinsville on the closing day of session lauded the measure as one of the Senate’s accomplishments from this year that he sees making the most impact.

SEA 1 seeks to remedy Indiana’s literacy crisis with a number of proactive and remedial approaches, including requiring schools to administer the statewide IREAD-3 test in second grade and directing new, targeted support to at-risk students and those struggling to pass the exam.

The most discussed – and controversial – component of SEA 1 is a provision that tightens the state’s policy for holding back students who don’t demonstrate reading proficiency by third grade, unless they meet one of a few exceptions, labeled “good cause exemptions.” Students will be afforded three opportunities to pass the IREAD exam before retention, with two chances to enter into summer school and remediation throughout third grade after the first round of testing in second grade.

That fact in mind has kept proponents of the bill, including Republican lawmakers and Dr. Jenner, firm in their position that SEA 1 is “not a retention bill” and holding back a student is a last resort.

While most agree on the more proactive aspects of SEA 1, mandatory retention is a sticking point for many who wanted to support the measure. Many educators and Democrats in the State House argued there are negative long-term effects for students who are forced to retake third grade . . . but Republican lawmakers remained firm that the state would disservice students who are promoted to the fourth grade without necessary foundational reading skills.

When asked if he thinks the new provisions in SEA 1 will work, House Speaker Todd Huston (R) of Fishers responded, “I know it will,” and referenced back to 2010 when similar retention policies were instituted by former superintendent of public instruction Tony Bennett (R), whom Speaker Huston served as chief of staff at the time.

“When we did it in 2010 . . . our reading rates went up significantly. So, that is one I am fully confident on,” Speaker Huston remarks. “When you look at the reading scores, when the rule was in place that we now codified, that was relaxed in 2016-17, when that rule was relaxed, reading rates began to decline.”

Governor Holcomb signed SEA 1 into law this week – checking off another priority on his 2024 Next Level Agenda.

Meanwhile, SEA 6-2014, a companion bill to SEA 1, requires the Indiana Department of Education to track and identify older students who don’t read proficiently.

We detailed for you in our last issue the disagreements between the House and Senate on defining antisemitism – a priority bill for House Republicans that faced a bumpy journey as it crossed chambers. Such differences were worked out in the final hours of the session on Friday, where lawmakers came to a compromise to send HEA 1002-2024 to the Governor.

HEA 1002 codifies a definition of antisemitism and prohibits religious discrimination at the state’s K-12 schools and higher education institutions. As we’ve told you, the bill sailed through the House with the universal working definition of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance . . . which the Senate then removed.

In a compromise, the conference committee retained the IHRA definition but left out the contemporary examples of antisemitism that the alliance includes. That decision appears to have placated both sides on the issue.

The Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council of applauded the measure on Friday, saying the IHRA definition in the bill sends a strong message against antisemitism. That message remains strong, even without direct reference to the examples in the law, asserted Caryl Auslander, speaking on behalf of JCRC, following the passage of HEA 1002.

“We feel very strongly that this will make a very strong statement against hate in the state of Indiana against Jews,” Auslander says.

The Indiana Muslim Advocacy Network also applauded the final version of HEA 1002, thanking the General Assembly for removing references to the IHRA examples. The group says: “Indiana Muslim Advocacy Network is pleased to see the passage of HB 1002 which aims to protect our Hoosier Jewish communities without restricting freedom of speech.”

One person not satisfied with the compromise on HEA 1002 is Attorney General Todd Rokita (R), who on Tuesday called on Gov. Holcomb to veto the “toothless” measure. Prior to the bill passing the Senate, General Rokita ad also called on lawmakers to restore the bill to its original form with the IHRA definition and its examples.

The AG states on Tuesday: “As I have stated throughout the debate on this antisemitism bill, the law was originally written to protect Jewish students in Indiana K-12 schools and university campuses from ruthless, anti-Semitic attacks that have increased since the horrific slaughter of Israelis on October 7th. Indiana Senators turned it into a toothless mess that allows anti-Semites to continue to cloak their discriminatory hatred of Jews as simple political disagreements directed at Israel, not Jews. Then, Indiana Representatives would not correct the Senate’s actions, which equates hateful, anti-Semitic rhetoric, like ‘From the River to the Sea’ to mere political speech. The Governor should veto this compromised bill to show he understands that regular Hoosiers won’t compromise with Jew-hating bigots.”

Gov. Holcomb has yet to sign HEA 1002 – just one of five bills left on his desk without a signature this week as of press time. On Thursday afternoon, he tells reporters he still hasn’t decided his action on the measure.

Despite lawmakers and interest groups appearing to come to a compromise, Holcomb reveals he’s heard from different people – even some from outside Indiana – who take issue with the IHRA examples remaining omitted from HEA 1002. He adds he worries leaving out the examples could make Indiana an outlier . . . as other states who have adopted the IHRA definition codified it fully, with the examples.

“In the last 24 hours and maybe even late into Friday night, things have changed since then,” Gov. Holcomb explains. “I want to make sure whatever we do, we get it right, and we don’t just do it to do it.”

Another House priority bill on education, HEA 1001-2024, looks quite different from when it was introduced. The measure now notably allows siblings of students who have Education Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), essentially a school choice program for students with disabilities, to qualify for their own ESA.

The bill, originally intended to modify last year’s law on Career Scholarship Accounts created under HEA 1002-2023, also allows students to use up to $625 to obtain their driver’s licenses. The author, Rep. Chuck Goodrich (R) of Noblesville, advocated in the final days of session to have that language put back into the bill after the Senate stripped it out.

Language on expanding higher education scholarships, such as 21st Century Scholars and the Frank O’Bannon Grant to be used for work-based training did not survive. Amid session discussion, concerns arose about the validity and cost of expanding those scholarships.

Senate Committee on Appropriations Chair Ryan Mishler (R) of Mishawaka remedied those concerns with a proposal to create a new fund to pay for post-secondary training for non-college-bound students. State dollars will not be appropriated until the 2025 budget session.

Higher Education Attracts Controversial Attention

SEA 202-2024, arguably one of the most controversial bills of the session, makes notable changes to colleges’ tenure, promotion, and diversity policies. The legislation was signed by Gov. Holcomb Wednesday evening, giving his stamp of approval to the attempt by majority lawmakers to “reform” higher education institutions’ reputation as “monolithic echo chambers.”

“SB 202 establishes a foundation at our publicly funded universities to ensure freedom of expression for students and faculty. The bill requires free inquiry and civil discourse programming for new students, strongly encourages academic freedom and protects faculty to express different viewpoints from their colleagues and university leadership,” Gov. Holcomb states. “The Senate Bill statutorily recognizes faculty tenure and tasks each institution to develop its own review process. I have faith in our public universities to faithfully implement this law to foster the successful growth and intellectual vibrancy of academia while protecting the rights of individuals.”

As a refresher, SEA 202 authored by Sen. Spencer Deery (R) of West Lafayette is an attempt to “modernize” tenure at state universities and thus promote “intellectual diversity” in the classroom. The new law requires a board of trustees to prevent a faculty member from getting tenure if the board thinks the member is “unlikely to foster a culture of free inquiry, free expression and intellectual diversity” and unlikely to offer students scholarly works from a range of “political or ideological frameworks.” Boards could also dock members considered “likely” to bring up personal political views unrelated to their specific field or class. Boards will also be required to conduct a tenure review every five years, where they would have to evaluate the above and if the faculty member “adequately” carries out academic duties, research, and more.

The legislation also creates complaint procedures aimed at professors who have shared political opinions unrelated to their academic discipline. A complaint would be filed with the university first, and could eventually get appealed to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. SEA 202 also compels colleges to consider “intellectual diversity” in policies alongside cultural diversity.

“Indiana just sent a strong signal that our state is committed to academic freedom, free expression, and intellectual diversity for all students and faculty,” Sen. Deery proclaims after Gov. Holcomb signed SEA 202 on Wednesday. “Universities that fail to foster intellectually diverse communities that challenge both teachers and learners fail to reach their potential. This measured bill makes it significantly less likely that any university will shortchange our students in that way.”

Throughout the legislative process, SEA 202 was lambasted by university faculty from all of Indiana’s public institutions, who labeled the policy as government overreach and an attempt to stifle academic freedom. Some university top dogs also got involved, with Indiana University President Pamela Whitten the first to sound the alarm against SEA 202, issuing a statement arguing the legislation would prevent IU from recruiting high-quality faculty and students.

Indiana State University President Deborah Curtis also expressed viewpoints similar to those of President Whitten. Purdue University administration (Sen. Deery’s former employer), however, had been more silent on the legislation. Administrators, including President Mung Chiang issued a statement following SEA 202’s passage trying to reassure its faculty that academic freedom will remain intact under SEA 202.

SEA 202 gained national attention as well, with coverage from the Washington Post, Inside Higher Ed, and The Dispatch. Keith E. Whittington, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University, writes a lengthy column for The Dispatch on SEA 202 titled, “Why ‘Intellectual Diversity’ Requirements on Campus Won’t Work.” In it, he criticizes Indiana lawmakers’ attempt as a “DEI proposal with a right-leaning twist” that “will still hurt academic freedom.”

Professor Whittington writes that universities do suffer from an “intellectual diversity problem,” as faculties tend to tilt “heavily to the political left” . . . but he argues “mandating that individual professors and individual classes themselves prioritize ‘diversity’ and ‘variety’ over truth is a step in the wrong direction.”

Other, less controversial, higher education proposals also took the spotlight this session.

SEA 8-2024 is a priority measure for both the Governor and the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. Among its several provisions is the requirement for all high schools to offer the Indiana College Core, a certificate earned by completing a set of coursework that’s recognized by all Indiana public colleges. A change to the bill in the House would have required the College Core to be offered online by 2027, to help smaller schools that may not have the resources to fully implement the College Core. That language was tweaked in the conference committee for IDOE to partner with one or more institutions by July 1, 2025 to provide online access to the college core through the course access program.

SEA 8 also tasks the state’s four-year colleges and universities to explore the possibilities of associate degrees and offering three-year degree programs. Such a suggestion to have four-year colleges offer associate degrees has brought into question the issue of mission differentiation, as we’ve told you previously. The state for two decades has recognized Ivy Tech Community College and Vincennes University as Indiana’s two-year institutions. Likely in an effort to ease these concerns, lawmakers added a provision into SEA 270-2024 to ask Ivy Tech and Vincennes to study the feasibility of offering bachelor’s degrees.

HEA 1179-2024 requires the board of trustees of a state educational institution to adopt a policy prohibiting the transfer, licensing, or sublicensing of intellectual property developed using the state educational institution’s resources to a foreign adversary (defined in the bill as China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and any country “designated as a threat to critical infrastructure by the governor under IC 1-1-16-8”). A state educational institution would also be barred from using state funds or resources to engage or contract with an individual associated with a foreign terrorist organization or support the activities of a foreign terrorist organization or a state sponsor of terror.

The board of trustees of each state educational institution would be required to adopt a policy prohibiting an employee of the state educational institution from making a public statement in the employee’s official capacity unless the statement relates to the university or has been approved by the board of trustees.

Chronic Absenteeism, Chaplains, Cell Phones, Oh My!

House and Senate leadership indicated that the issue of chronic absenteeism would be a priority this session. Such legislation didn’t land on either majority caucus priority agenda, but what lawmakers characterize as a first step in conquering the issue passed.

SEA 282-2024 requires schools to establish “truancy prevention policies,” and requires schools to meet with parents of chronically absent students in kindergarten through sixth grade. Schools will have to establish plans and wraparound services to improve attendance for those at-risk students. The measure also requires school officials to report truant students to the prosecutor’s office and requires prosecutors to take legal action against parents of students who are habitually truant. A provision to study chronic absenteeism among older students in an interim study committee is also included.

HEA 1137-2024 requires principals to allow a student to leave for off-campus religious instruction – changing the current state law that already allows release time religious instructions, but principals had the power to reject such requests. The Senate added language from the dead SB 50 allowing chaplains to work in public schools as counselors. House lawmakers were not the biggest fans of the chaplain language and both chambers came to an agreement in conference committee to remove the chaplains provision.

SEA 185-2024 requires school districts to adopt policies banning communication devices like cell phones from the classroom. The policies must include exceptions for emergencies, health needs, and cell phone use at the direction of a teacher or under an individualized education program. Schools have discretion on whether to allow students to use phones during non-instructional times such as passing periods or lunch time.

We already saw school districts begin to create advisory panels this week to address policies for local cell phone use.

“Various Education Matters”

HEA 1243-2024, the IDOE agency bill, enacts numerous education policy changes, including requiring the Indiana State Board of Education to establish a new standard Indiana diploma to replace the existing ones by October 2028 – a process that will be kicking off March 27 at the next SBOE meeting, now that Governor Holcomb signed the bill into law.

The measure also establishes requirements for computer science to be taught in schools and compels IDOE to approve curriculum for internet safety, focusing on teaching students the dangers of social media and internet challenges. Under HEA 1243, schools can deploy ILEARN tests three times per year at checkpoints, instead of only once annually. As we’ve told you, many schools have already opted into pilot programs for this testing model.

Other various education provisions were added to HEA 1243 toward the end of session including: Extending the personal finance curriculum to 8th graders; requiring school districts to adopt a policy on habitually truant students participating in extracurricular activities; specifying that literacy achievement grants are not subject to collective bargaining; and creating professional development and curricular resources for mathematics. Some of these provisions came from HB 1304, which died in the final days of session without a conference committee report. Other education language shoehorned into SEA 282 (but found not germane by the Senate), also found a home in HEA 1243.

SEA 270-2024 clarifies language from SEA 391-2023 relating to the $1 law exemption for public schools that share referenda money with charter schools. Under this law (which is effective retroactively to May 2023), only referenda sharing under SEA 391-2023 would qualify a school to not be subject to the $1 law – likely thwarting a current lawsuit under appeal between the state and Indianapolis Public Schools on whether IPS is already exempt from the $1 law. Rokita v. Bd. of Sch. Comm’rs for the City of Indianapolis, No. 23A-PL-02729.

SEA 211-2014 establishes an excellence in civics education designation for students and schools. A conference committee removed several House amendments that would have subjected charter schools to open-records law, established an internet safety curriculum, and allowed school employees to remove disruptive students from the classroom.

HEA 1104-2024 lays out requirements for schools’ armed intruder drills, including that students can’t be subject to drills that include sensory components, like simulations of gunfire. The measure also changes Indiana law to allow school police officers the option to be on a 1977 pension plan, which gives death and disability benefits.

HEA 1380-2024, another omnibus “education matters” also includes policy changes including: Prohibiting schools from charging a fee for out-of-district transfer students; expanding the Indiana Learns program that gives students up to $1,000 for tutoring beyond 2026; requiring that Innovation Network schools receive 100% of their state tuition support dollars, and prohibiting school districts from charging them above a certain amount for goods and services; directing IDOE to establish pilot programs on student transportation and school facilities; requiring universities to publicize information about hazing incidents; and requiring the Commission on Seclusion and Restraint to meet twice each year and adopt a policy requiring schools to minimize or eliminate the use of time-outs.

Bills Left Behind

SB 30, meant to tighten up the state’s enforcement of failing to stop for a school bus with its stop arm extended, failed in the final days of session as solons in the House and Senate couldn’t agree on the bill’s language.

While SB 30 sailed through the Senate, problems began when it came over to the House and Republican lawmakers there gutted most of the proposal. The Senate-approved SB 30 would have authorized police to ticket the registered owner of any vehicle photographed driving past a school bus with its stop arm extended, regardless of who was operating the vehicle.

The full House voted on an amendment the penultimate week of session to delete almost the entire text of SB 30, and replace it with a sentence directing the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to annually remind Indiana vehicle owners that passing a stopped school bus is a misdemeanor crime.

SB 30 author Sen. Rick Niemeyer (R) of Lowell has argued that such clarification in the law is needed because police and prosecutors are reluctant to pursue school bus stop arm violations. Their rationale: Cameras only capture the offending vehicle’s license plate and typically do not photograph the driver.

Following the gutting of SB 30, the Senate dissented from the House’s changes, and the bill received a conference committee hearing. However, a report was never produced before lawmakers adjourned sine die on Friday.

A provision affecting collective bargaining in HB 1304 did not survive in the Senate, and despite some concerns from the Indiana State Teachers Association, the language didn’t find its way into another bill in the final days.  Author Rep. Jake Teshka (R) of North Liberty stated the bill gave flexibility to local school boards, which may choose to adopt mastery-based programs. Schools that did that could choose opt out of collective bargaining under the House version of the bill.

The Senate excised that language, with the bill’s sponsor Sen. Aaron Freeman (R) of Indianapolis saying now was not the time to take on collective bargaining. “If this legislature wants to talk about eliminating collective bargaining, then let this legislature talk about that. I think that needs to be a vote for another day, at another time – not in this bill,” he remarked.

In the end, HB 1304 died after not making it out of the conference committee process – likely due to time constraints. Language from it was added to HEA 1243, as we mentioned.

HB 1073 would have required schools to install video cameras in special education classrooms and allowed parents to review recordings in certain situations. Some provisions of this bill on seclusion and restraint were added to HEA 1380-2024 during conference committee.

SB 128 would have required schools to seek school board approval for their sex education curriculum and publicize the materials and information about who teaches the courses. The bill died in the House when it did not receive a hearing in the busy House Committee on Education.

HB 1072 would have prohibited requirements for students in a health profession education program to receive immunization as a condition of clinical training or clinical experience required by the program. The measure, authored by Rep. Becky Cash (R) of Zionsville, did not receive a hearing in the House Committee on Education on which she serves. Rep. Cash tried and failed to amend this exact language in SEA 8 in committee, but members, including Chair Bob Behning (R) of Indianapolis did not have the appetite for it.

Another session has gone by without cursive writing returning to Indiana curriculum requirements. SB 287 carried the perennial language from Sen. Jean Leising (R) of Oldenburg . . . but the bill died in the House without earning a hearing from the education panel.

What’s to Come in the Budget Session

This short session afforded us a bit of a preview of large changes likely ahead for K-12 education next year when legislators draft the next budget. A significant change is expected for the funding formula next year, particularly for the state’s voucher program.

As we’ve detailed previously, a proposal from Sen. Mishler in the now-dead SB 255 this year would make dramatic changes to Indiana’s choice scholarship programs by sunsetting the current programs and replacing them with a new program – one with no income limits and a process for families to create custom programs for their child’s education. The bill earned a hearing in his own Committee on Appropriations, with Chair Mishler (who surprised school choice advocates by advocating the issue this year) saying this was just the kickoff of the discussion . . . and the matter would return next session when the budget is drafted.

SB 145, another bill that gave us a taste of what may come in 2025, merited a hearing in the Senate Committee on Tax and Fiscal Policy but no vote. The bill, authored by Sen. Brian Buchanan (R) of Lebanon, would have provided up to $10 million in state tax credits for charitable contributions to charter school building funds.

You can also expect to see more discussion surrounding postsecondary training funding, with the expansion of 21st Century Scholars and the Frank O’Bannon Grants being left off of HEA 1001 this year. With Sen. Mishler proposing this year a separate training grant fund in the Senate version of HEA 1001, we suspect that topic will come back up as part of the budget next year.

Chronic absenteeism and truancy are issues likely to come back as well, as lawmakers just scratched the surface on the issue this session – only addressing K-6 students, and not touching the high school level. We’ll probably see the topic return as early as this summer in an interim study committee.

Ultimately, despite the substantive education focus in this short session, there still appears to be a lot left to be accomplished in 2025.