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Teachers union joins the push to roll back 2011 education reforms

Protesters hold signs criticizing testing and other concerns at a union-led rally at the statehouse last February.
Protesters hold signs criticizing testing and other concerns at a union-led rally at the statehouse last February.
Scott Elliott

Politicians who want support from Indiana’s largest teachers union will have to back stronger labor laws and help teachers take some of the sting out of recent education reforms, union leaders said today.

As the Indiana State Teachers Association prepares for statewide elections next year, its leaders released a long list of priorities for the legislative session that starts in January.

Top on their agenda is a major effort to roll back some of the limits on teacher collective bargaining that Republican lawmakers pushed through in 2011 after they took control of both legislative houses. Teachers since then have been allowed only to negotiate salaries and benefits and have had no say over other issues they used to negotiate, such as class size or school calendars.

The union also wants to soften the effects on teachers of other education reform measures that were enacted in 2011. The reforms expanded the number of charter schools, created a private school voucher program and overhauled the way teachers are evaluated.

“Educators feel disrespected by those who created policies demeaning to teacher professional judgment and autonomy,” ISTA President Teresa Meredith said in a press conference where she bluntly warned politicians to pay attention.

She put lawmakers on notice that the state’s roughly 50,000 teachers will be watching next year and holding lawmakers accountable. Teachers, with union help, were widely credited with boosting state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s stunningly successful bid to upend her predecessor, Tony Bennett, in 2012, an upset-victory some view as one of the biggest in Indiana history.

“There is an election coming in the fall,” Meredith said. “I think everyone needs to remember that.”

But where the teachers union was once one of the most powerful political institutions in the state, it has seen its influence diminish some in recent years as ISTA has struggled with financial troubles and Republican majorities in the statehouse grew big enough to overcome Democratic objections.

In addition to targeting the 2011 reforms, ISTA’s legislative wish list includes a reduction in the number of standardized tests students take and new incentives to attract and retain young people in the teaching profession.

The union also wants the state to take a two-year break from factoring test scores into teacher evaluations and school A-F grades.

Student test scores are expected to drop dramatically now that state tests have been overhauled using tougher new standards. The union says its not fair to make critical decisions like whether schools can be taken over by the state or teachers deserves raises until test results are “stable and solid.”

Gov. Mike Pence and Republican legislative leaders have said they want to offer teachers relief from some of the potential consequences of the expected drop in scores, but they have not yet released a plan.

The Republicans have not endorsed the full “pause” in accountability sanctions that Democrats have called for, but relief from the full effect of the scores is an area where the union shares common ground with the Republican leadership.

Another area of potential agreement is the issue of teacher recruitment. As some school districts around the state say they’re facing a teacher shortage, Republican leaders have signaled plans to use student loan forgiveness to entice bright college students to teaching careers. The union has a similar proposal, but its plan would also include recent college graduates who already are teaching.

Meredith said ISTA will be focusing some of its energy next year on laws to boost teacher professionalism. Specifically, it wants to see a new state board of professional teaching standards. It also wants statewide funding restored for teacher training after that money was cut in 2012. And, the union has renewed its call for $2,000 annual stipends for up to 10 years for teachers who earn the rigorous national certification from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.

Neighboring states such as Kentucky, Ohio and Illinois have thousands of teachers with the credential, but Indiana has just 169 National Board certified teachers — one of whom is their ally, Ritz, who once was union president in nearby Washington Township schools.

On Monday, a 49-member panel of mostly teachers put together by Ritz to study problems of recruiting and retaining teachers in Indiana also called for rolling back the 2011 reforms. The panel specifically cited laws from that year that banned automatic pay raises for teachers who earn advanced degrees and encouraged districts to move away from traditional pay scales that guaranteed annual raises.

“These are solutions that will make a notable difference in the lives of the students we serve,” Meredith said. “Teachers voices have been squelched in the process of discussion. We can no longer be left out while someone else determines what our students need.”

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