Latino students and others who are learning English may get left out of a proposed law that aims to close achievement gaps and other disparities between Indiana students of different backgrounds.
HB 1107, authored by Rep. Greg Porter (D-Indianapolis), would require the Indiana Department of Education to establish standards for teacher training programs in "cultural competency," or the ability to understanding how a student's background can affect learning style.
The bill would strengthen existing law, which requires schools to consider cultural competency in their annual improvement plans but does not make training mandatory for teachers.
The original bill focused on several groups of students, including racial and ethnic minorities, students of lower socioeconomic status, and those who are still learning English.
Last week, however, the Senate education committee removed references to "English language learners" from the bill. References to "exceptional learners" -- students with a disability or high ability -- were also removed.
Porter says he'll fight the change when the bill goes before a House-Senate conference committee for final negotiation, probably next week.
"It's not just about African Americans, it's [also] about Latinos, Hispanics," said Porter. "It's about the culture of people who are in that same community. It's about high, exceptional learners. It's about the way people learn differently. It's about special [education]. We need to help educators understand what students they're dealing with."
Education experts say cultural competency training may help schools adjust to the country's growing cultural diversity and fix disparities among students of different backgrounds.
According to a 2000 report by the Indiana Education Policy Center, for example, black males nationwide are more likely to be sent to the office, suspended or expelled than other students, but there's no evidence to suggest that they misbehave more often. In fact, studies indicate they receive harsher punishment for less severe actions than their peers.
Latino students who are not native English speakers, meanwhile, have the lowest high school graduation rate in the country -- just 61 percent, according to figures cited in a 2007 report from IU's Center for Education and Evaluation Policy (CEEP). A 2008 CEEP study found that they also tend to be underrepresented in special education in Indiana, possibly because limited use of English can mask a learning disability.
Indiana has seen an explosion of language minority students in recent years. Last year, according to the CEEP, Indiana schools enrolled more than 35,000 students who were classified as having "limited English proficiency" -- about six times as many as in 1999. About three-quarters of those students are Latino.
Sen. Teresa Lubbers (R-Indianapolis), who chairs the Senate education committee, said her committee struck references to English language learners from the new bill because their needs were already covered elsewhere in state statutes dealing with professional development for teachers.
According to Joel Hand, director of legislative issues for the Indiana Department of Education, language minority students already benefit from several mandatory programs, including tutoring.
And last year, the General Assembly budgeted almost $7 million to teach English to students with limited proficiency - 10 times as much as had been allocated the previous eight years.
But according to the 2007 CEEP report, Latino English language learners need more than just quality language instruction.
"In order for Latino [English language learners] to thrive in our schools, we need to improve the cultural competency of all school personnel," says the report, which notes that "very few Indiana teachers are adequately trained to serve the burgeoning [language minority] population."
Language-minority students would benefit from the focus on students of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, said Clara Anderson of the Indianapolis-based advocacy group Children's Bureau, Inc., but "if they don't speak English, well, that's a different variable."
Although the Department of Education would decide what level of cultural competency training will be required, Hand says it's up to lawmakers to say which groups of students should be the focus of those standards.
Language minority students are included in the original cultural competency law, passed in 2005.
Porter said he crafted the new bill in cooperation with education experts from organizations such as the Indiana Civil Rights Commission and the NAACP, as well as local professors and school officials, who felt state law should go further to promote cultural competency.
The new bill received strong support in the House, including a thumbs-up from Democratic Rep. Matt Pierce of Bloomington, but it was less well received by the Senate, where it passed in its amended form by a vote of 29-17.
Lubbers co-sponsored the bill in the Senate and also voted to approve the education committee's changes. She said she supports "anything that I think will improve student learning," but notes that many Senate Republicans weren't convinced of the bill's merits.
"[Some] still have some concerns about how it will be implemented, if it's too prescriptive in terms of teacher training," said Lubbers. "Others voted against it because they're not exactly sure what the term means."
Lubbers also speculated that a last-minute amendment to the bill by Sen. Jeff Drozda (R-Westfield) may have cost votes. The amendment would require high schools to teach human fetal development. Several lawmakers said they expect the section on human fetal development to be removed when the bill is discussed in conference committee.
Democratic Sen. Vi Simpson, who represents Monroe and Brown Counties, voted against the bill, as did four other Senate Democrats. She could not be reached for comment.
Charli Wyatt can be reached at .