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Bills aimed at teacher hiring take a back seat to ISTEP, for now

IPS struggled to fill all its open teaching jobs late in the summer. Alan Petersime

As Gov. Mike Pence, state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and legislative leaders are rushing a bill to ease the pain of last year’s ISTEP scores, another seemingly bipartisan education issue has, at least temporarily, moved to the sidelines.

That’s a bit of a surprise.

At the legislature’s ceremonial Organization Day in November, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, touted House Bill 1002, intended to help ease teacher shortages in Indiana, to be a top priority.

It may still prove to be, but for now the issue of teacher hiring seems to lost some of its urgency, and fewer solutions with broad bipartisan support have come forward.

While there was considerable debate in 2015 about whether the state actually was facing a crisis of having too few teachers, the state has clearly faced shortages in some areas. For example, rural schools, high-poverty urban schools and schools with open jobs in hard-to-fill subjects like math, science and special education typically have the hardest time recruiting and retaining teachers.

There are still many ideas on the table about what the state might do to curb those difficulties. Legislators have offered a few bills that could alleviate the pressure, mostly focusing on teacher pay and opportunities for additional education. But it’s not yet clear what direction lawmakers will take.

Bosma’s House Bill 1002, which would reward aspiring teachers with four years of free college tuition if they commit to teaching for four years in Indiana. His plan is similar to one proposed by Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry as a way to encourage more students to go into teaching. Bosma said the bill is in its final draft form, and he anticipates support from other lawmakers.

“It’s generally been really well-received among educators, administrators and university presidents we’ve talked to,” Bosma said.

Hendry estimated that his plan would cost about $4.5 million. Bosma has not yet put a price tag on his plan but said he didn’t think funding would be a barrier, even though 2016 is not a budget year.

“We’re looking for available funds to fund those programs now,” Bosma told Chalkbeat in November. “And if we can’t, we put the girders in place and add the walls next year.”

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz led a teacher panel this summer focused on the need for support for new teachers and higher overall pay to help stave off shortages. House Bill 1101, authored by Rep. Donna Schaibley, R-Carmel, would take some pressure off new teachers and allow them to still earn pay raises or bonuses even if they get a rating of “needs improvement” or “ineffective” in their first two years. Right now, teacher can be blocked from earning raises if they fall in those bottom two categories on a four-point scale.

Sen. Dennie Kruse, R-Auburn, said he plans to file a bill that would establish a “residency program” for new teachers, enabling them to earn a master’s degree more quickly and receive mentoring from veteran teachers along the way.

Additional education is especially important in Indiana this year after the Higher Learning Commission, an organization that accredits state universities, changed its policies to require any teachers teaching dual credit courses in high schools have either a master’s degree or 18 credit hours in the subject they teach.

Currently, 1,200 teachers in the state would be ineligible to teach dual credit courses if the policy went into effect as planned in 2017. Indiana has applied for a extension from the commission so that the law wouldn’t go into effect until 2022.

Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Mount Vernon, is expected to file a bill that would make it easier for teachers to meet the new dual credit requirements.

Under McNamara’s bill, any teacher already teaching dual credit classes could get college credits in exchange for the number of classes they teach. For example, a teacher who teaches one dual credit course in U.S. History would be able to take one free class, or three credit hours, towards a master’s degree in that subject.

“So theoretically, if you teach one class per year until 2022, you would get your 18 hours in the content area,” McNamara said.

Some of those 1,200 teachers might already have some graduate school classes, she said, but the cost of such a program would still be fairly high, and the majority of it would fall on universities to fund. McNamara said that she doesn’t think universities should have to foot the entire bill, but some schools, such as the University of Southern Indiana, has already looked into such an exchange.

McNamara said the new dual credit policies aren’t necessarily based on substantive data that says teachers must have the extra credential to effectively teach kids. And there hasn’t been public outcry in Indiana over how teachers are prepared for dual credit classes — the change is coming solely from the commission, she said.

“In essence,” she said. “It’s harming us as a state.”

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