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February 13, 2013

Bill aims to end ‘cherry picking’ of transfer students

INDIANAPOLIS — Legislation that would stop public schools from “cherry picking” transfer students is headed to the Indiana House.

The bill would ban school districts from accepting only the brightest transfer students while turning away students with special needs, low test scores, and minor disciplinary problems.

The House education committee approved the legislation in a 9-0 vote Tuesday, after hearing from teachers and administrators in urban schools who said their suburban counterparts were unfairly profiting from Indiana’s decision three years ago to open up school district borders.

“We’re going to do our level best to ensure that students choose schools (and) schools aren’t choosing students,” said the bill’s author, Republican state Rep. Mike Karickhoff of Kokomo.

Co-authors on House Bill 1381 include Democrat Rep. Terri Austin of Anderson, and two Republicans, Rep. Ed Clere of New Albany and Rep. Kevin Mahan of Hartford City.  

At issue is Indiana’s open enrollment law, passed by the General Assembly in 2008, which cleared the way for more students to transfer out of the school district where they live and into a neighboring district without having to pay tuition.

The change came after the state took over funding of schools, which had been previously paid for with local property taxes.

Within a year of the law going into effect, more than 12,000 students had transferred out of their home districts and into a neighboring district. Many have transferred out of urban school districts and into suburban or rural districts.

The original open enrollment law allowed school districts to set policies about who they’d accept. Some schools have used students’ standardized test scores and disciplinary records to determine which transfer students to let in – and which ones to close out. Some school boards have decided not to accept any transfer students at all.

Rick Muir, an Anderson school teacher and president of the Indiana Federation of Teachers, told the House education committee that the law has lead to discriminatory policies in which some school districts were “cherry picking” the best transfer students and turning away students with special needs or low standardized test scores.

The problem is exacerbated by recent education legislation that elevated the role of standardized test scores in determining pay for teachers and how schools are graded by a new state evaluation system.

It’s also complicated by the fact that the state provides extra dollars to schools for every low-income student enrolled. That means a transfer student with high-test scores and from a low-income family is seen as having more value than a student with low test scores or other challenges.

“This discriminatory policy in Indiana should not be tolerated any longer,” Muir said, adding that it’s “widening the gap between haves and have-nots.”

Dawn McGrath, a school administrator in Kokomo, said Indiana legislators who’ve been pushing for more school choice for families need to rectify the problem.

“In this case, school choice is only available to choice students,” McGrath said.

Under Karickhoff’s bill, school districts would still be allowed to opt out of taking any transfer students. But if a district did decide to accept transfer students, it would have to accept all transfer students with few exceptions.

Those exceptions include students who’ve been suspended for 10 or more days in a school year or who have been suspended for causing physical injury or violating drug and alcohol policies.

It would also require school districts to be more transparent with their transfer policies, such as posting deadlines on their websites. And would require schools that are at or near capacity to set up a kind of lottery system, where admission would be determined by a random drawing at a public meeting. The law would cover transfers between schools within the same district, as well as inter-district transfers.

Frank Bush, head of the Indiana School Boards Association, said his organization supported the bill. John Barnes, the legislative liaison for new Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, said Ritz is neutral on the bill for now, but will be watching it as it moves through General Assembly.

Maureen Hayden covers the Indiana Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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