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Lawmakers to revisit reading proficiency, holding back third-graders

House Speaker Todd Huston gives opens Organization Day with a speech, on Tuesday, November 21, 2023. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

House plans to double-down on antisemitism ban as some Democrats plan push for the right to citizen-led ballot initiatives on Org Day

Too many Hoosier third-graders can’t read at an appropriate skill level — and some shouldn’t be going on to fourth grade, Indiana lawmakers said Tuesday during the ceremonial start to the legislative session.

They’re also planning to tackle student truancy, antisemitism and more during the non-budget session, which will begin in earnest Jan. 8 and must end by mid-March. Leaders elaborated on what they won’t pursue during a legislative preview Monday.

“We’re adversely affecting any student that we pass along (because) they can’t read at the appropriate level,” said House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers.

He emphasized that low literacy is connected to a greater likelihood of incarceration and use of government assistance, adding, “That’s just not fair to the kid.”

Importance of reading scores

Third grade is typically the point at which children shift from learning to read to using reading itself as a tool to learn other information. In Indiana, third-graders who fail a reading exam can be held back unless they’ve already been retained twice — with additional exceptions if a child is disabled or an English-language learner and a committee decides to promote them. 

But legislative leaders said those exceptions have been misused.

“There have been exceptions created and the exceptions have gotten broader and broader and broader,” Huston said. 

“There may be some opportunities for waivers under the right circumstance, but it seems like an awful lot of kids are getting into fourth grade and then we’re not keeping an eye on them to make sure that they do later become proficient,” Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said.

“Will it make some parents mad? Yeah, I suppose so,” Bray, R-Martinsville, added. “But they need to be vested in their child’s education … so we hope that they’ll be partners with us.”

State law refers to retention as “a last resort.”

But if lawmakers create a bottleneck at third grade, schools could struggle to staff enough teachers. Large class sizes also have negative effects on students.

Bray acknowledged that possibility, especially in the first year after implementation of such a law, but said schools could move their teachers and classrooms around to adjust.

Asked how the move would impact school budgets, Huston countered, “How does it affect kids?”

“(Lawmakers will) figure out the budget thing, but we are doing those kids a total disservice,” he added. “We’ll have to figure (it) out because if it’s gonna cost us more money, we should pay more money.” 

But he was clear that Indiana’s goal isn’t to hold back kids — it’s to ensure that they’ve learned to read by the time fourth grade rolls around.

The focus on education could extend to student truancy.

Nearly 20% of Hoosier students were chronically absent from school last year — meaning that they missed 18 days or more — according to the Indiana State Board of Education. 

Bray called that a “horrific statistic.”

But he and Huston noted that there are already laws about truancy on the books. Instead, they proposed a greater focus on enforcement.

Proposals on defining antisemitism, ballot initiatives 

One bill making a comeback will be legislation defining antisemitism, including it in code as religious discrimination and requiring schools to provide education “free of religious discrimination.”

Huston said it would be “even more appropriate” in 2023, acknowledging Israel’s ongoing war against Hamas, a terrorist organization. An Oct. 7 Hamas attack killed more than 1,200 Israeli people and Hamas is still holding hostages. Counter-attacks from Israel have killed more than 12,000 Palestinians

Over the last few weeks, reports of violence against Jewish, Muslim and Arab people have increased

“You don’t have to turn on the news or read the news … to see the situation happening far too often across our country to the Jewish students,” Huston said. 

However, the bill didn’t receive a hearing in the Senate last year, and Bray didn’t commit to hearing it this year. 

“We’ll take a look at it when it comes back over here. I haven’t spent much time on that yet,” Bray said. 

Across the aisle, Senate Democrat Leader Greg Taylor said his caucus would be advocating for working Hoosiers “still struggling to get by.”

Key issues would include child care policies, paid family leave and even a push for citizen-led ballot initiatives — something other states have used to legalize marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes. 

“It would be scary to put that on the ballot. But what does it say about us that we don’t want to hear from Hoosiers? … (And) allow everyday Hoosiers to have their voices be heard?” Taylor said.

The Indiana Constitution doesn’t currently allow ballot initiatives. Any sort of citizen referendum would need buy-in from Republican lawmakers, who seemed uninterested.  

“We pass laws here in the General Assembly and we hope and ask the voters to hold us accountable,” Bray said. 

AFT calls for protections to collective bargaining, unions

In a separate event, GlenEva Dunham, president of the Indiana chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said the union wanted to work with lawmakers to find “real solutions,” including a plan to address teacher shortages that doesn’t rely on temporary licenses. 

“We know that public schools are the backbone of our democracy and they create opportunities for our children, regardless of their zip codes,” Dunham said. “We know that public schools unite all of us.”

Indiana American Federation of Teachers President GlenEva Dunham presents their ‘Real Solutions’ campaign at the 2023 Org Day on Nov. 21. (Whitney Downard/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Dunham also announced that AFT would be endorsing Democrat Jennifer McCormick, the former Superintendent of Education, in the 2024 race for governor. 

In terms of agenda, Dunham said the organization wanted to protect collective bargaining and union negotiations with districts. 

Current teacher Sen. Andrea Hunley said her own district had benefited from collective bargaining, which she said expanded the use of floating holidays and added leave for staff recovering from a miscarriage. 

“But that’s not something that the people at the top are going to come up with on their own,” Hunley, D-Indianapolis, said. 

Another Democrat from Indianapolis, Sen. Fady Qaddoura, announced his intention to reopen the state budget and add $650 million more in funding for schools — which would shore up tuition support and cover school textbooks fees. However, his proposal is unlikely to get much traction with the Republican supermajority.

Asked if he’d consider reopening the budget for education, Huston was quick to answer with a firm “No.”

This article originally appeared on Indiana Capital Chronicle.

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