LEGISLATURE: House keeps retention mandate in literacy overhaul bill; makes tweaks to higher ed measures

Rep. Ed DeLaney, Indianapolis, offered several amendments to education bills Monday that were defeated. (Screenshot of livestream)

By Casey Smith | Indiana Capital Chronicle

For The Republic

INDIANAPOLIS — A mandate to require reading-deficient third graders to be held back a year in school withstood challenges from Democrats on Monday — though some Republican lawmakers joined in opposing stricter retention.

The provision in question is part of a GOP literacy overhaul measure, Senate Bill 1, which seeks to remedy Indiana’s literacy “crisis” by requiring schools to administer the statewide IREAD test in second grade — a year earlier than current requirements — and directing new, targeted support to at-risk students and those struggling to pass the exam.

But if, after three tries, a third grader can’t meet the IREAD standard, legislators want school districts to retain them.

House Republicans who voted for an amendment to remove mandatory retention of third graders from Senate Bill 1:

  • Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany
  • Rep. Cory Criswell , R-Middletown
  • Rep. Michelle Davis , R-Whiteland
  • Rep. Joanna King, R-Middlebury
  • Rep. Randy Lyness, R-West Harrison
  • Rep. Ethan Manning, R-Logansport
  • Rep. Kyle Pierce, R-Anderson
  • Rep. J.D. Prescott, R-Union City

While much of the rest of the bill has received bipartisan support, the retention language has come under increasing scrutiny from Democrats, parents, teachers and numerous education  experts.

Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, offered an amendment on the House floor in an attempt to strike the retention requirement from the bill. The effort failed in a 36-56 vote, however.

All Democrats and eight Republicans voted in favor of the amendment, while five other Republicans chose not to vote at all.

“In light of the money we’re spending under this bill for education and training of the kids who are falling behind, there should be less need for retention, I hope and pray. But ultimately, the decision has to be the parents’,” DeLaney said. “This says we’re going to change what goes on in the family and in the life of an individual child because the General Assembly deems it’s appropriate. That’s a very powerful action. In my view, the presence of this provision in the law undercuts all the positive parts of the bill.”

Another failed amendment offered by DeLaney would have delayed the retention portion of the bill from taking effect until the 2025-2026 academic year. Under the latest draft, the provision takes effect for the upcoming 2024-2025 school calendar.

“This is not the appropriate time to retain kids. I understand we’ve got to get them to read. It is a crisis,” said Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute, referring to the latest reading scores showing that one in five Hoosier third graders continue to struggle.

“But it is kindergarten or first grade. We don’t need a high stakes test. Teachers know at the end of kindergarten if their kid is on track or not. Teachers know at the end of first grade if that kid is on track or not,” she continued. “Waiting until third grade … and the parent is now out of the equation, and we’re just going to mandatory-retain them — it’s not the proper place to do it.”

A full vote on the bill could happen Tuesday.

Debate continues over mandatory retention

Bill author Sen. Linda Rogers, R-Granger, and other Republicans have repeatedly said the proposal is not a “retention bill,” and holding Hoosier kids back in school should “be a last resort.” They maintain, too, that if literacy supports and remediation in Senate Bill 1 are properly implemented, no children will have to be retained.

Exceptions are carved out in Rogers’ bill for students who have been retained in third grade before, special-education students, certain English language learners, and students who pass the math portion of the statewide assessment and receive remedial reading instruction.

Rep. Mike Andrade, D-Munster (Photo from Indiana House Democrats) 

Even so, Rep. Mike Andrade, D-Munster, authored an amendment to exclude English language learners from the retention mandate altogether, citing state and federal guidelines that holding students back should not be based solely on English language proficiency or on one piece of test data. His amendment failed 34-60.

“My parents came as immigrants to this country, and I was one of those English learning students at school. We were kind of secluded from society as immigrants, being scared of immigration and the whole process. We spoke Spanish in our households, we spoke Spanish in our community. We spoke Spanish with our primos,” Andrade said. “Unfortunately, when I got to school, it was hard to be able to transition into the English language and be taught for several hours a day. It creates, I believe, anxiety and mental health issues with students who get bullied.”

Last year, 13,840 third-graders did not pass IREAD, according to test data. Of those students, 5,503 received an exemption and 8,337 did not. But about 95% of students without an exemption moved onto 4th grade and just 412 were retained.

Multiple education experts emphasized that third grade is a critical year for literacy because it’s at that time students shift from learning to read toward reading to learn.

“The goal of this bill is not to retain a single student. However, if a student is not proficient in reading by third grade, we know that those students go on to have higher rates of dropping out. They enter DOC custody at higher rates. They have higher rates of teen pregnancy, and so on, and so forth,” said bill sponsor Rep. Jake Teshka, R-South Bend. “By not doing this, we would be failing our students.”

Amendments to other education proposals

Slight changes were made on Monday to other education bills, as well.

In a voice vote, the House chamber approved an amendment to Senate Bill 8 — a broad higher education measure — requiring the state education department to offer an online option for all Indiana College Core courses by 2027.

The underlying bill would ensure all Hoosier high schools offer the College Core. The curriculum consists of a 30-credit-hour block of general education courses that transfer between all of Indiana’s public institutions and some private colleges.

The legislation would further require colleges and universities to offer three-year degree programs.

Another amendment to the bill approved on Monday allows Indiana’s attorney general to sue state higher education institutions that fail to report to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education (CHE) any contracts of value with or gifts from foreign “sources” located in foreign adversaries, like China, Iran, North Korea or Russia.

Under the latest version of the bill, the attorney general can launch such legal action at the request of the governor, a member of the General Assembly, members of CHE and the State board of Education, or an Indiana taxpayer.

Emotions in the House chamber also flared over a separate, contentious higher education bill that GOP lawmakers said seeks to push speech in college classrooms toward “intellectual diversity.”

An amendment from Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, was approved unanimously and clarified who can handle complaints against faculty members relating to “free inquiry, free expression and intellectual diversity” criteria laid out in the bill.

Multiple attempts by Democrats to amend the bill were defeated. That included a proposal by Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, to remove tenure language from the bill. He said politics should not be part of the tenure process and should “remain in the hands of educators.”

“To deal with this issue, which might have been the genesis of this particular bill, that there are some students who feel like their conservative views are not heard or tolerated in the classroom … I started teaching as an adjunct in 1978. Since I got my doctorate, I’ve never seen that as being a problem,” Smith said. “I think most professors want the debate, they want the discussion in the classroom. I don’t think there’s all this indoctrination and this lack of tolerance that is being reported. We’ve got some insecure students. Sometimes, they’re introverts. Sometimes, they are not secure in their feelings about themselves, their self esteem — they feel like they’re being persecuted.”

— The Indiana Capital Chronicle covers the state legislature and state government. For more, visit indianacapitalchronicle.com.