Gov. Holcomb unveils plans to hold back more third graders, expand child care access

Gov. Eric Holcomb speaks with reporters following the swearing-in ceremony for Elise Nieshalla as state comptroller on Dec. 1, 2023. (Credit: Mark Curry)

Jan 08, 2024

Gov. Eric Holcomb released his plans to grow Indiana’s early child care workforce and increase third grade literacy rates during his legislative agenda rollout on Monday. As a result of his proposal, thousands of third graders could be held back each year.

Holcomb’s agenda unveiled at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired marked the start of the 2024 legislative session, his eighth and final while in office. Next January a new governor will replace the term-limited Holcomb.

Lawmakers gaveled in Monday afternoon for session. 

“I couldn’t be more excited, quite honestly, about the eighth of eight years and all that we’re going to get done,” Holcomb said Monday. “That’s what taking it to the next level is all about after all is constantly seeking to improve on every front, again to make Indiana the best place to live, work and play.”

Here how Holcomb’s legislative agenda would impact you: 

Require schools to hold back more third graders

Students who fail the third grade reading test will be required to retake third grade starting in 2025, unless they qualify for a good cause exemption, such as if they’re an English-Language Learner student or enrolled in special education.

The effort is part of the state’s attempt to increase literacy rates for students. In 2023, nearly 1 in 5 third-graders failed the IREAD-3 test. 

“We want to make sure that folks aren’t put at a disadvantage in grades four, five, six and on when they haven’t mastered that reading skill,” Holcomb said. “It’s also been said very simplistically, ‘The more you learn the more you earn.’ And there’s a lot of truth to that.” 

Currently, schools largely have the flexibility to pass whomever they want to, even if they fail the IREAD test. As a result, most schools are choosing to hold back few students. 

In 2017 the State Board of Education gave schools more freedom to decide whether to hold back third graders. As a result, more students who failed the IREAD-3 were allowed to advance to third grade. (Credit: Joy Walstrum)

Of the nearly 14,000 third graders who failed the IREAD test in 2023,  roughly 400 students had to retake third grade. If all third graders who didn’t qualify for a good cause exemption were held back, close to 8,000 students wouldn’t have advanced to fourth grade in 2023. 

Holcomb also wants to require students take IREAD in the second grade, in addition to third grade. Right now, it’s offered to some second graders but not required. In 2023, 771 schools already give second graders the test.Plus, his proposal requires continued testing for any students that fail IREAD in third grade through the sixth grade. 

House Minority Leader Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, threw cold water on Holcomb’s proposal to hold back more students during his opening day speech on the House floor.

“Let’s enact universal pre-K so that all Hoosier children can have a strong educational foundation,” GiaQuinta said. “This will certainly improve our literacy rates — much more than holding kids back and bottlenecking our schools.”

Expand the number of early child care seats

Holcomb’s agenda doesn’t include any new dollars to expand early child care access, but he does recommend multiple legislative changes in order to increase the number of early child care seats in Indiana. 

“We need to have more workers,” Holcomb said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to obviously accommodate more kiddos, and then their parents can get back in the workforce.” 

One of his proposals would reduce the minimum age of certain early child care employees from 21 to 18 in some cases and 18 to 16 for supervised caregivers. He also wants to make it easier for teachers to serve as substitute caregivers. 

His legislative proposals would also enable more early child care employees to qualify for state-funded early child care options. Those employees who make 58% of the state median income would qualify for On My Way Pre-K and Child Care and Development Fund vouchers. 

Increase three year degree options

Holcomb wants to require every public university to offer at least one degree that can be achieved in three years. 

The goal is to continue to make college degrees cheaper, and entice more students to complete their degrees. Right now, two-thirds of Hoosiers who seek a bachelor's degree finish within six years.

Require students to take a computer science course

If Holcomb’s legislative proposals advance, every high school student will have to take a computer science course in order to graduate starting in 2029. 

Currently, 91% of high schools offer a computer science course, but only 7% of students enroll. 

“Schools have done an incredible job quite frankly of offering all throughout the state of Indiana,” Holcomb said. “This next logical step of requiring by 2029, so we have time to get there, is in step with the way of the world that is digitally driven.”

Access to state money after an emergency

Another part of Holcomb’s legislative agenda would make it easier for Hoosiers and communities to access disaster relief dollars after flooding, tornados or other natural disasters. 

His plan would enable someone to qualify for disaster relief dollars even before the federal government declares a disaster and increase the maximum amount of financial assistance someone can qualify for. 

He also would incentivize county leaders ro prepare an emergency plan in advance of a natural disaster by offering them more money for doing so. 

“Make it easier for local leaders to respond in the now.” 

What’s else?

Holcomb’s agenda also includes the launch of a new one-stop website connecting Hoosiers to jobs and training programs and a commitment to review bail reform efforts and their impact on crime and recidivism rates. 

What’s next?

Lawmakers, specifically Republican legislative leaders, are the ones with the power to make Holcomb’s goals a reality. While legislative leaders come from the same political party as Holcomb, they’ve broken with the governor on some items on past wishlists. 

This, however, should be a smooth session. Both House and Senate Republicans have said they will support efforts to increase reading proficiency rates, but neither chamber has shared specifics.

In the House Republican agenda rolled out on Monday, legislative leaders said they will support efforts to “make Indiana the No. 1 state in the nation for third grade reading proficiency by 2027.”

Senate Republicans will unveil their legislative agenda on Thursday.

“Senate Republicans share several of the governor’s priorities like expanding access to child care and supporting our students,” Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said in an emailed statement, “especially as it pertains to ensuring our third graders have the foundational reading skills they need to be successful as they progress in school.”

The session will be a fast-paced one. It’s a non-state budget writing year, which means lawmakers must wrap up by mid-March at the latest. 

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