By Brandon Barger
INDIANAPOLIS—Indiana legislative leaders agree on at least one thing as they head into the 2020 legislative session: the passage of a bill to prevent the state’s teachers and school districts from being punished for poor results on Indiana’s new standardized test.
That’s just one of the demands, though, that an estimated 14,000 teachers and their supporters will be making of lawmakers Tuesday as they rally at the Statehouse during the legislature’s one-day organizational meeting.
The teachers’ “Red for Ed” rally also is calling on lawmakers to boost teacher pay and eliminate some new licensing requirements. And it was the first topic raised to House Speaker Brian Bosma and other legislative leaders Monday at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce’s annual legislative preview luncheon.
Bosma, R-Indianapolis, was joined by Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, filling in for House Minority Leader Phil Giaquinta; Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville; and Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, to answer questions and discuss policy on education, smoking and workforce development for the legislative session that starts in January.
Bosma said that legislation to prevent the new ILEARN test results from causing schools to get bad grades and teachers’ poor performance marks—the so-called “hold harmless” bill—is at the top of the to-do list.
“It would be our top priority this session, in record time, to pass hold harmless,” Bosma said.
However, Bosma defended a new state law, which teachers want to be repealed, that requires them to work 15 hours in other fields of work over the course of five years in order to renew their teaching license. Bosma said the rule allows teachers to help students find jobs.
“How smart is it to get the persons who are closest to our young people, who are in class with them every day and who know ‘Jimmy’s really got a talent with his hands’” into positions where they can find out, for instance, that “there are $110,000 a year welding job available in the next community,” Bosma said.
And while teachers and some Democrats have called for the state to tap its $2 billion in reserves to improve Indiana’s lagging teacher pay, Bosma said teacher pay is a local, not state legislative, issue.
Austin said the teachers’ demands are not unreasonable.
“Fifteen years of education reform hasn’t necessarily given us the results we want or need,” she said. “…I think that the message that we will probably hear from teachers, superintendents, board members, and administration tomorrow is they want to be part of this process and for too long they have felt that their voices have been left out.”
Another key topic addressed Monday outside education was the Chamber-backed proposal to raise the legal age to smoke to 21, from the current 18. The proposal comes as the number of young people using e-cigarettes is rising quickly. According to the Chamber, the vaping usage among Indiana high school students increased around 387% between 2012 and 2018 and nearly as much among middle schoolers.
All four legislative leaders agreed that the age must be raised to discourage minors from buying both tobacco and vaping products. Bosma, who opposed raising the age in past sessions, said his mind was changed due to appeals by veterans and members of the Armed Forces and he would be personally endorsing the legislation at Tuesday’s organizational meeting.
“The Armed Forces themselves have asked us to do this. They don’t allow their recruits to smoke in boot camp,” Bosma said. “They are all on board for raising the age to 21.”
Bray said he has seen the effect vaping has had on students, especially in middle schools, through his own children.
“We have watched, and I have specifically watched because I have middle school boys, the middle school and high school kids going to vaping in droves,” Bray said.
However, Bosma was adamant that the two-year budget passed in the 2019 session would not be re-opened by lawmakers in 2020, even for a change in the smoking tax, another possible way to stop young people from buying cigarettes and vaping products.
Bosma said that the smoking and vaping age issue will need to be considered separately from the cigarette tax that both the chamber and Democrats support.
Still, he said he and his Republican colleagues in the House have discussed dipping into the state’s surplus to pay for $300 million in capital projects in cash, as Gov. Eric Holcomb has proposed, rather than through debt. Holcomb’s proposal includes $50 million for a new swine barn at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.
Bosma and Bray said health care costs also will be debated in the 2020 session, including ways to prevent people from being surprised by unexpected bills.
Austin said Democrats will also be seeking ways to ways to make sure prescription drug pricing is transparent. Lanane said Senate Democrats will seek to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana possession, though he did not back legalize marijuana as some states have done.
Lanane said Democrats will again push for a nonpartisan commission to draw legislative and congressional district lines and for tougher gun laws, including background checks on private gun sales and safe storage of firearms.
FOOTNOTE: Brandon Barger is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalists.