SUPERINTENDENT’S CORNER: Bills in progress could affect local schools

By LAURA HAMMACK, guest columnist

The start of a new year translates into the opening of the 2018 session of the Indiana General Assembly. While this is a “short” session, there are several bills of interest for education that I thought our readers would want to keep an eye on.

Interestingly, over 90 education-related bills have been filed in the House and Senate in the first two weeks of the legislative session.

Since I know you all watched “Schoolhouse Rock” when you were kids, I know you know the process for bills becoming law thanks to the song, “I’m Just a Bill.” It’s amazing to watch that song come to life in the Indiana General Assembly, and I am always fascinated to see the legislative process in action.

Some bills that are being presented help public schools, while others will hurt. Let’s unpack some of the more favorable bills together.

First, a bill that has received quite a bit of support is Senate Bill 8, which requires each school corporation to include cursive writing in its curriculum. A version of this bill has been filed at least six years in a row in the Senate, but has not yet received a hearing in the House.

Last year, a law was passed that required the Indiana Department of Education to conduct a statewide study on cursive writing. The results from the study showed support for bringing the curriculum back to schools from school boards, principals and teachers. (It is important to note that the number of respondents translates to 3 percent or less of the education field). We are hearing a lot about this bill, and I could see it making some headway this year.

Second, Senate Bill 172 — computer science curriculum — is one that has a high level of support from the governor’s office as it is part of his legislative agenda. This bill would require public schools to offer one semester of an elective computer science course at least once each school year to students in high school and would require computer science to be a part of the K-12 curriculum. The bill also would create grants that could be used to train teachers in computer science.

We are excited about this bill because we strongly believe that capacity for computer science is an integral component of almost every job that will be available in our region in the future. As evidenced by the 40 girls who showed up to our new club, Girls Who Code, computer science is COOL!

Third, Senate Bill 177 — the Indiana high school diploma — is a bill that has been filed in response to the federal government’s determination that under the new accountability law (ESSA — Every Student Succeeds Act), Indiana’s general diploma can’t be counted in Indiana’s federal graduation calculation rate because the “preponderance of students” do not receive this diploma. This bill would create one Indiana diploma for all students and within this one diploma, there will be “distinctions” presented as: 1) Core 40 Distinction, 2) Core 40 Academic Honors Distinction and 3) Core 40 Technical Honors Distinction.

We understand that if this bill becomes law, students will still be able to receive a general diploma. Unfortunately, students who receive a general diploma will still not be counted in federal graduation rate calculations.

Senate Bill 189 — K-12 funding — is a really important bill for us. Interestingly, when Indiana school funding was forecast last year, they underestimated the number of students attending public schools than was expected when the budget was passed in April 2017. The miscalculation in enrollment estimates translated into a $16 million shortfall. This bill will allow the State Budget Agency to transfer the necessary dollars from Indiana’s “tuition reserve account,” which includes dollars allocated to ensure that the state can cover the costs required for educating students if forecast revenues fall short.

We are happy to see that this bill has been passed out of committee and that there is wide support to get this shortfall fixed. It is estimated that the funding gap would translate to about $11 per student across the state of Indiana and we would have had to take a $20,000-plus hit to our general fund. Thankfully, this bill appears to be moving forward.

I’ll be sure to keep our readers posted on any legislative actions that impact our boys and girls as they arise. I was so touched last year when community members reached out to our elected officials to communicate support for the various bills that were important to us. Your voices matter and are so appreciated!

Laura Hammack is superintendent of Brown County schools. She can be reached at 812-988-6601 or lhammack@browncountyschools.com.