State lawmakers piling on unfunded mandates

(Terre Haute) Tribune-Star

Without a doubt, Jackson County and other Hoosier communities need to enhance efforts to prevent teen suicides, child abuse and neglect, and the bullying and human trafficking of children.

More people should learn CPR and how to handle a child suffering a seizure, too.

Also, every teenager’s path toward a productive work career should include expert adult guidance. And along the way, those young people — who deal with increasing societal pressures and disrupted home lives — should have access to counseling for their social and emotional needs.

If that sounds like a lot to handle, it is. The sheer breadth of those accumulating problems would seem to signal an all-hands- on-deck response involving towns, cities, counties and the state to join nonprofit and private entities already trying to alleviate each individual dilemma. And, of course, it is reasonable to expect Indiana government to provide adequate funding and resources to address all those crucial problems facing the youngest Hoosiers.

Or, state officials could just pile all those responsibilities on the schools and teachers. The state has chosen that option.

The Legislature rolled out 53 new public education laws this spring, adding to the 21 school laws enacted last year. (2018 was a short session. They have only so much time.) Several of those laws include “unfunded mandates.” In other words, the state orders the local schools to absorb yet another social services duty without providing enough extra resources to do it.

Many of those added duties fall to teachers — folks trained to teach kids math, science, English, history and technology, but now also required to be trained in seizure awareness; suicide prevention; detecting child abuse, neglect and human trafficking; and administering CPR.

Meanwhile, those same teachers must teach their academic subjects well enough to merit a pay raise, assuming their students and their school score highly enough on state-mandated standardized tests. That is the basic structure imposed by conservative reformers through the past 15 years. That ideological block continues to dominate the Legislature, which this past session opted not to directly fund teacher pay raises. On that one point, lawmakers left that call up to the local schools by freeing up $150 million in pension liabilities — on a one-time basis, of course — that districts could then shift toward teacher pay.

A 2019 report by the Rockefeller Institute of Government found that Indiana teachers had received the smallest average pay increase from 2002 to 2017, compared to their colleagues in the other 49 states.

Legislators did assure teachers of one increase during this year’s session — 15 hours of professional development related to their community’s workforce needs, just to renew their licenses. One option to fulfill that burden would be to, say, work another job for 15 hours somewhere in the community. Kind of like community service, but for law-abiding citizens, such as kindergarten teachers.

It is no wonder that many school districts, such as Jackson County and others outside of Indiana’s affluent areas, cannot attract enough full-time teachers to fully staff their classrooms.

Like schools and teachers, the Indiana School Boards Association is concerned about the mounting number of unfunded mandates and public education laws. The ISBA’s annual compilation of state laws and regulations is now nearly 1,700 pages, or about 500 pages longer than most versions of the Bible.

Legislators are on the case, though. The top two Republicans on the Indiana House Education Committee, Rep. Bob Behning (R-Indianapolis) and Rep. Tony Cook (R-Cicero), plan to send a letter to the Indiana Legislative Services Agency, which can then create a study committee to “eliminate, reduce or streamline mandates placed on schools” and “streamline fiscal and compliance reporting to the General Assembly.”

A House act, passed this session, requested a summer study committee to assess the problem over a period of years. But that topic did not make the cut for this summer. Maybe it should have been mandated.

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