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Back in session: Indiana's education brain trust

Any chance that the Indiana General Assembly would steer clear of education issues this year disappeared as the first bills were filed. Lawmakers are education experts, of course – they all went to school and know precisely how schools should be run.

As expected, there's a bill to lift one of the few restrictions on voucher entitlements. Senate Bill 184 allows the sibling of a student receiving a voucher to also receive a voucher, without first attending public school or attending a parochial or private school through a private scholarship. It's the proverbial camel sticking all but its tail under the public tax-dollar tent. Parochial school parents who objected to the voucher legislation two years ago because they already were paying tuition were told by the school-choice proponents to be patient – their turn was coming. Give Sen. Carlin Yoder and his colleagues credit for keeping their promise to steer more tax dollars to church-affiliated schools.

I wrote last week about SB 193, Sen. Scott Schneider's latest attempt to exempt Indiana from the Common Core State Standards. It has been assigned to the Senate education panel, so it will get a hearing. The fiscal impact statement notes that Indiana spent about $29 million on ISTEP+ testing last year and asserts that prohibiting adoption of the Common Core and its related tests could reduce standardized assessments costs.

Then there's SB 189, which would exempt high-performing districts from requirements placed on traditional public school districts. Some lawmakers have figured out that measures to undermine urban schools are also hurting the wealthy suburban schools in their own districts. By exempting them from the punitive measures, they can reduce the opposition.

Sen. Dennis Kruse has filed a bill that's already caught some national attention, allowing school boards to require recitation of the Lord's Prayer each school day. The legislative analyst preparing the fiscal impact statement deftly observed, "There could be some minor impact in deciding the version of the Lord's Prayer to use; however, it should be able to be done within existing resources."

Bloomington blogger Steve Hinnefeld points out that Senate President Pro Tem David Long has wisely assigned Kruse's prayer bill to the Rules Committee, a signal that it – pardon the pun – doesn't have a prayer.

Good for Long – he seems to have learned something from the creationism bill he allowed to pass out of the Senate last year. Speaker Brian Bosma made sure it died in the House, but not before Indiana drew more unwelcome attention.

Also on tap this year:

There's a school discipline bill that would allow for students to be suspended or expelled for "a delinquent, criminal, or tortious act against another student or a teacher that violates school discipline rules and that is committed while the student is on or off school grounds, including during periods when the student is not attending classes or school functions." Seems like a dangerous tool in the wrong hands.

Another bill allows law enforcement to use drug-sniffing and bomb-sniffing animals in schools. I thought that was already allowed, but perhaps not.

The cursive-writing instruction requirement is making another appearance, of course, and the perennial bill to prohibit schools from starting before Labor Day has been filed.

There's some worthwhile legislation, too – including bills to clean up the mess lawmakers created in an effort to make it easy for charter schools to take over unused school buildings.

On balance, however, the education bills on tap for the upcoming session won't do anything to improve Indiana schools or to address the widespread damage done to them over the past four years.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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