Reading bill clears Indiana House; controversial tenure bill also approved

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By Whitney Downard, Indiana Capital Chronicle

Lawmakers voted Tuesday to approve two contentious education bills—one would require school corporations to retain students who fail to pass the IREAD exam and another would push colleges and universities to include more politically diverse instruction.

The reading overhaul in Senate Bill 1 now moves back to its original chamber where senators must approve changes made by the House before it can head to the governor’s desk.

Under the bill, schools must first test students in second grade—a year earlier than current statute—and offer targeted support to struggling students. If a student fails three times, they must be held back with limited exceptions.

“The future is bleak for students who are not proficient in literacy,” said GOP Rep. Jake Teshka, the bill’s sponsor. “It’s really about earlier intervention and giving student’s every possible chance to read by third grade.”

Various Democrats spoke against the retention mandate, even calling it a “poison pill” in a bill with “good intentions.”

Several attempts to weaken the retention mandate failed on Monday, as bill sponsors repeated the assurance that retention was “the last resort.” Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, also noted that the body hadn’t given adequate time to analyze the impact of the science of reading, a literacy initiative passed by the General Assembly last year.

According to the latest reading scores, one in five Hoosier students struggle to read. Even as 13,840 third-graders failed the test, just 412 were retained. Roughly one-third, or 5,503 students, received an exemption.

The law provides for exemptions, including those for special education and English learner students.

Others pointed out what they called a hypocrisy in the General Assembly for not funding universal pre-kindergarten education, which repeated studies demonstrate is pivotal to a child’s ability to learn and read.

Rep. Renee Pack, a Democrat from Indianapolis, said she worked for a decade as a reading intervention specialist for Wayne Township schools. She said children who might fail IREAD need “a second look,” especially children living in poverty or homelessness.

“This body is against adequate funding for pre-kindergarten where a child could get the head start that they critically need,” Pack said. “Would you all please, please, please consider that as an option so that we can truly walk the walk and talk the talk when it comes to taking care of our kids and making sure that they can read proficiently.”

Three Republicans joined the Democratic caucus and voted against the bill, which passed on a 69-27 vote: Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany; Rep. Randy Lyness, R-West Harrison; and Rep. J.D. Prescott, R-Union City.

Higher education targeted

The House also approved a bill aimed at pushing state colleges toward “intellectual diversity.”

Its authors based the bill on surveys that found conservative students feel uncomfortable in college classes. The legislation was amended, meaning the Senate will also need to approve those changes.

Several Democrats, many of whom have outside employment with the state’s universities, lambasted Senate Bill 202 for having a “chilling effect” on faculty and micromanaging higher education institutions.

Part of the bill calls for “limiting or restricting the granting of tenure or a promotion if certain conditions related to free inquiry, free expression, and intellectual diversity are not met.”

“SB 202 makes the accusation that our universities can’t be trusted to govern themselves,” said Democrat Rep. Sue Errington, who moved to Muncie in the 1970s so she and her husband could work as professors at Ball State University.

“I trust our world-class universities; I trust our educators. I do not trust that this bill will do anything but dissuade potential students and teachers from coming to our state universities,” Errington continued.

Several decried the infusion of a professor’s potential politics into tenure decisions, specifically.

Two Republicans joined Democrats in a vote against the bill: Reps. Ed Clere, of New Albany, and Dave Hall, of Norman. It advanced on a 67-30 vote.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.