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Preparing for the Season

While many of us are stringing lights and wrapping presents, there’s another season for which we should also be preparing – the 2023 Indiana Legislative session.

What youth and child issues are likely to be discussed? What data exists that should inform legislative action on those concerns? How can we involve more young people in the legislative process, through both making space for their voices and modeling the civility and exchange of ideas so needed for our democratic process?

The gaps in opportunities and achievement for Indiana’s youth have been clear for years. The upcoming session presents the chance to take significant actions to enhance our kids’ well-being. What follows are a few of the youth-centered issues that would benefit from action:

Early Literacy

  • In the 2021-22 school year, 81.6% of Hoosier third graders demonstrated reading proficiency through the State’s IREAD-3 assessment. While this is similar to 2020-21 proficiency levels, these levels are down significantly from each of the prior ten school years.
  • Black and Hispanic students’ average proficiency rates are, respectively, 17.5% and 12% lower than the state average. These widening gaps suggest disproportionate pandemic impacts and a need for targeted interventions.
  • While access to high quality early learning experiences is known to be foundational for literacy, in Indiana, 57% of Hispanic families and 72% of rural families live in areas without enough licensed childcare providers.

Mental Health

  • Three out of every 10 Indiana high school students reported that their mental health was most of the time or always not good (including stress, anxiety, and depression), according to the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
  • 28% of Indiana adolescents ages 12-17 have a mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral problem.
  • In 2021, 82 counties in Indiana had mental health shortages, meaning that the county does not have enough mental health care providers to meet the county’s demand. 85% of the Hoosier population lives in mental health shortage areas.

Post-secondary Completion

  • According to a November 2022 report from Ascend Indiana and EmployIndy, job growth in the state is projected to be strongest in occupations requiring postsecondary credentials (Master’s degrees 13.1% growth, Associate’s degrees 7.9%, Bachelor’s degrees 7.3%).
  • Indiana’s college enrollment rate is at its lowest level in 10 years and has been declining since the 2014-15 school year. In the class of 2020just over half (53%) of high school graduates had enrolled in postsecondary education within a year after graduation.
  • The 21st Century Scholars program offers enrolled students up to 100% coverage for their tuition at 2- or 4-year Indiana colleges and universities. Those enrolled complete college at rates significantly higher than their non-Scholar peers (36.6% vs 27.4%), making it important that all eligible students have an easy path into the program. However, many of those eligible do not successfully complete program enrollment. For example, while 69% of Black Hoosier students are eligible for the 21st Century Scholars program, only 17% are enrolled.


Each election cycle, the media focuses on voter enrollment and turnout of young people, with voter turnout often being lowest among 18 to 24-year-olds. Discussions of involvement in politics should focus on more than voting rates. As youth workers and community leaders, we have the opportunity and responsibility to make space for youth to participate in the policy-making process, listening to their individual and collective perspectives on the issues impacting them. More organizations should follow the examples set by such groups as the Commission on Improving the Status of Children in Indiana, which, in partnership with VOICES Corp, held a Virtual Youth Engagement Summit this fall, and Foster Success, which facilitates the Indiana Youth Advisory Board, and those many local programs with ongoing activities to ensure that youth voices are centered and elevated as policies and programs affecting them are discussed and reviewed.

Finally, we need to find a way to listen and work with those whose opinions differ from our own. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 70% of Americans surveyed believe incivility has risen to “crisis” levels. While a basic definition of civility often starts with politeness and good manners, a deeper interpretation involves principled debate and civil discourse. Civility involves:

  • A dedication to listening to various and differing viewpoints,
  • Seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue,
  • Understanding and managing our own biases and preconceptions,
  • Engaging in robust debates that remain respectful without attacking another person’s character,
  • Connecting with and staying engaged despite deep disagreement.

Civility does not require agreement or compromise of values; instead, it accepts that reasonable people can hold differing perspectives. Archon Fung, the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government at Harvard University details civility as being required for cooperative projects and democratic societies, connecting civility to an important part of good citizenship. When talking about politics, not surprisingly, most people tend to blame those with other political affiliations for the decline of civility.

The legislative session, just like the holiday season, benefits from the clarity of purpose and advance planning. When we understand the data, honor, and elevate those we hope to benefit, and show up with the spirit of civility, we have an opportunity to demonstrate care for our youth that can spread cheer year ‘round.


About the Indiana Youth Institute :

For over three decades, Indiana Youth Institute (IYI) has supported the youth services field through innovative trainings’, critical data, and capacity-building resources, aiming every effort at increasing the well-being of all children. To learn more about IYI, visit www.iyi.org, follow us on Facebook or Twitter.