By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
After focusing on failing schools in recent legislative sessions, some Indiana lawmakers say it’s time to reward high-performing schools with more money and more flexibility.
They’re pushing for legislation that would free up the state’s top-achieving schools from some state regulations — including the mandatory 180-day calendar — and send more dollars to schools with historically high graduation rates and student test scores.
“We’ve literally done nothing to encourage our high-performing school districts,” said Republican state Sen. Brandt Hershman, the influential chair of the Senate tax and fiscal policy committee. “Most of our efforts have been focused on those schools that perpetually have under-performed.”
Hershman, of Buck Creek, said past legislation aimed at failing schools, which brought more state oversight and more dollars for “turnaround” efforts, was needed.
But the state also needs to play a role in supporting high-performing schools, he said, giving them the latitude to become “laboratories for innovation.”
Hershman is co-author of a bill expected to come to a vote in the Senate this week that would give continually top-performing school districts in the state more autonomy.
Senate Bill 189, if it became law, would allow those districts to develop some of their own curriculum, to create their own teacher evaluations, and to organize classroom time based on instructional minutes instead of the current 180-day school year requirement.
To qualify, schools would have to meet certain goals, including a 90 percent graduation rate and higher SAT scores than statewide averages.
The bill, championed by Republican state Sen. Mike Delph of Carmel, has the enthusiastic support of administrators with the Zionsville Community Schools, a fast-growing and high-performing school district.
They see it as a way to get some relief from the financial pressures created three years ago when the state cut $300 million in funding to K-12 schools.
Mike Shafer, the district’s chief financial officer, said the legislation, among other things, would allow some schools to offer “e-days,” enabling students to stay home from school and complete coursework online.
He said the bill is aimed at schools that are “not in need of micromanaging.”
Herschman also wants to provide more money to historically high-performing schools. Those schools, typically located in more affluent communities, get less state and federal dollars per pupil than schools with high numbers of low-income students, because of school funding formulas that take into account such factors as family poverty.
He’s author of a bill that would create a new “achievement test grant” program that would funnel more dollars to schools with students that score well on standardized tests.
Senate Bill 493 would provide an additional $500 for every student who passed the ISTEP exam or the required end-of-course assessment tests in high school English, algebra or biology. To be eligible, a school corporation would have to have 85 percent of its students pass ISTEP or have a 6 percent increase in the pass rate for the end-of-course assessments. Only 33 of Indiana’s 292 school corporations hit either of those marks last school year.
Hershman said funding for the grant program would come out of the state’s $2 billion surplus and would not take money away from the existing school funding formula.
On the House side, key lawmakers also support the idea of driving more dollars to high-performing schools. Their plan may come closer to the one proposed by Republican Gov. Mike Pence in his two-year budget plan.
Pence is calling for a 1 percent a year increase in school funding, with the second year’s increase based on schools meeting certain performance growth benchmarks.
Under that formula, schools would be judged not on how well they’ve done in the past, but on how much improvement they make from one year to the next in raising student test scores and graduation rates.
“The goal would be to give it to schools that are really meeting the needs of all students,” said House Education Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican.
“Schools with student populations that are more difficult to educate and that are doing a great job of moving those students forward, those are the schools that are going to get more money,” Behning said.
Behning is expected to start hammering out the details of the House version of performance-pay for schools when the House education committee meets Tuesday.
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org