House panel resurrects controversial teacher pay bill

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, authored HB 1384, in which voucher language was added late last week.

A proposal to let superintendents pay some teachers more than others without approval from their unions got new life today.

Just days after the Senate unexpectedly killed a controversial House bill that would have granted superintendents new negotiating powers, the House Education Committee today resurrected the measure by taking up a similar Senate bill.

Senate Bill 10 had been previously unlikely to get a hearing, but when it seemed clear that House Bill 1004 would get knocked down by the Senate last week, House members scrambled to put the Senate’s version on its last-minute docket for today, the last day for hearings. The committee passed it 7-4.

The political maneuvering angered teachers unions and other educators who have vocally opposed both bills and was a snub to Senate Republicans who thought the politically charged issue was better left alone this year.

“The bill usurps local control and crushes relationships,” said Sally Sloan, a lobbyist for the Indiana Federation of Teachers.

The bills were intended to give superintendents new tools to attract qualified teaching candidates in the face of a state-wide teaching shortage in subjects like math, science and special education and in urban and rural districts. But the Senate bill goes even farther than the House version.

Although both bills would let superintendents decide to raise teacher pay above union-approved pay scales, Senate Bill 10 didn’t receive the amendments that made the House version more palatable to some legislators.

The House version limited higher-salary negotiations to superintendents trying to hire teachers for hard-to-fill positions, but the Senate bill would extend that choice to districts aiming to “attract or retain a teacher as needed.” The Senate bill would also let superintendents inform their school boards of those decisions in private meetings, rather than requiring those discussions to be public.

House Democrats who opposed the House version were dismayed about the farther-reaching Senate bill.

“If (decisions are made) in executive session, what kind of transparency is going to be possible under this?” said Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie. “It just seems like it’s going to create the kind of atmosphere that gets away from cooperation.”

Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, questioned whether the bill was being rushed through.

“There’s a host of unanswered questions,” she said. “It may be the greatest concept since sliced bread, but the point is we have not thought it through carefully.”

Originally, Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he’d make both bills’ teacher pay language identical if the committee passed the Senate bill, but because House Bill 1004, which Behning authored, is dead, any changes from House lawmakers could bring up the possibility that the Senate version dies as well.

“Obviously the fate of (House Bill 1004) changed last week, so I just had a change of opinion on how I should move forward,” Behning said.

Late last week, senators announced the legislation should not move forward.

“The Senate Republican Caucus has decided that we will not proceed with House Bill 1004 or any similar legislation this year,” Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said in a statement. “We believe that the bill’s intent to deal with the teacher shortage issue in Indiana was misperceived by some as something that would be harmful to teachers. That was not the bill’s intent, nor do I believe that would actually occur. However, it is clear we need to go back to the drawing board.”

Senate Bill 10 and now-dead House Bill 1004 were both strongly opposed by the state’s teachers unions as well as some unaffiliated educators. Critics argued the bill would create tension among teachers and prevent collaborative work that would better serve kids. Teachers who spoke to the panel also had many questions about exactly how the negotiation process would work.

“Bargaining outside of collective bargaining is so detrimental and causes more losses than wins,” Sloan said. “If teachers are coming in and asking for more than has been bargained, then someone is going to lose.”

But the bill’s supporters say superintendents need more flexibility to attract qualified teaching candidates. Melissa Scherle, a teacher at Indianapolis Public Schools Washington Irving School 14, said she’s seen too many good teachers leave because of higher pay offered elsewhere.

“We were not able to compete with (other schools) because we had very little wiggle room with our compensation,” Scherle said.

If House lawmakers approve any amendments to the Senate bill, the Senate would either have to agree to those changes or take the issue to a conference committee for more debate and a final vote from the full Senate. Without amendments, the bill could go straight to the governor. House Bill 1004 narrowly passed the House earlier this month 57-42.

But Behning said some parts of the bill still don’t sit right with him, such as the provision for private meetings. Those issues could be changed in later bills that wouldn’t threaten Senate Bill 10 from advancing through the full House, he said.

“I still have issues with (the private meetings),” Behning said. “But there are ways we can tweak that going forward.”

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.