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Scott Elliott

California ruling prompts reflection about Indiana’s teacher protections

A ruling against teacher tenure in a Los Angeles lawsuit earlier this week has local advocates considering their own challenges to teachers’ job protections.

The preliminary ruling in the lawsuit Vergara v. California strikes down a slate of that state’s laws around teacher tenure and firing. The judge in the case, Rolf Treu, said data showing that poor and non-white students in California are more often taught by low-performing teachers convinced him that the laws violate the state’s constitution. The distribution of teacher quality “shocks the conscience,” Treu said in his ruling.

The lawsuit was brought by nine families with the backing of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who began supporting education issues after he was unsettled by how difficult it was for his own children’s schools to fire teachers. Its backers include national critics of teachers unions, including Michelle Rhee of StudentsFirst, which has an Indiana chapter.

Its critics include teachers unions and others who say that tenure protects teachers from capricious administrators and helps make teaching an attractive profession.

“Today’s ruling would make it harder to attract and retain quality teachers in our classrooms and ignores all research that shows experience is a key factor in effective teaching,” said Dennis van Roekel, president of the nation’s largest teachers union, said in response to the ruling.

The state of California and its teachers unions are gearing up to appeal, guaranteeing a long legal fight before the issue of teacher tenure in California is resolved. Still, their first-round success has Vergara supporters weighing whether to take on teacher tenure laws in other states.

The labor landscape is pretty different in Indiana, which in recent decades eliminated teacher tenure and other laws that some felt advantaged unions over school districts on issues of teacher job security.

Hoosier teachers still have protections against unjust firing, but they are weaker than states like California.

Local critics of teachers unions believe principals should have even more flexibility. But Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith argues Indiana’s system is the opposite of California: it gives the advantage to administrators.

“It’s not fair a system at all,” she said. “It makes it easier for someone to get away with dismissing a veteran teacher simply because they don’t want them any more.”

But Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, thinks Indiana is in a good place when it comes to teacher protections.

“There’s probably better flexibility now,” he said. “The pendulum has come a little more center. There are protections for teachers but when we loosened up the collective bargaining law that re-centered us a little.”

Changes in state law in 2011 further limited teachers unions, which used to bargain on an array of teacher working conditions such as class size and rules for requiring meetings outside of the work day. Indiana teacher unions can now only bargain on issues of pay and benefits.

The 2011 law also called for a redesign of the traditional union step system, under which teachers earn more pay the longer they stay in the district or when they get more education, such as a masters degree.

Just as the California unions argued, Meredith said Indiana teachers need more protections so that effective, experienced teachers aren’t unfairly fired just to save money or for even more unjust reasons.

“We need some sort of process to protect veteran teachers from being fired because someone just graduated from college and is related to someone and they need a job,” she said. “That used to happen all the time.”

But it doesn’t happen anymore, Bess said, and he argued it isn’t likely to, in part because the 2011 law makes hiring and firing heavily dependent on teacher performance. It would not be easy, he said, for principals to rig evaluations in order to unjustly fire teachers just to make room for others different that they prefer.

“I think that would be a pretty small occurrence for a superintendent or principal to direct teacher evaluation for the purpose of, say, trying to hire a relative, especially if a teacher had consistent evaluations as effective,” Bess said. “I don’t see that happening.”

Meredith said she also fears new evaluation and bargaining laws could lead to lower pay for teachers, as ISTA has seen many districts propose pay raises that are paid as one-time bonuses that are connected to performance or depend on teachers taking on extra duties.

“Base pay could remain very low,” she said. “If we don’t see change in legislation it may become hard for schools to get teachers because they won’t be able to pay them very much.”

To Bess, however, basing pay heavily on performance provides good incentives for teachers and for principals, whose own ratings depend also on how well their teachers are able to improve student test scores and academic work.

Principals, he said, should want the best teachers and be willing to pay for top teaching talent.

“If a principal wants to make changes in teachers, that impacts student achievement,” he said,” and the principals’ evaluations too.”