The basics of education in Indiana

The basics of teachers unions in Indiana: Facing tough times

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Union-affiliated teachers attended a rally for Superintendent Glenda Ritz last year. Teachers unions led the charge against Senate Bill 10.

(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.)

Teachers unions, once a powerful force in Indiana, have struggled in recent years with financial troubles, legal woes and diminished political power.

But with more than 45,000 teacher union members across the state and a former union leader elected as state superintendent of public instruction in 2012, Indiana’s union movement remains influential and is aiming for a revival.

The stakes are high, as strong Republican control of state government has been accompanied by education policies unions view as hostile.

Cuts in state tuition aid to schools during the recession of 2008 and 2009, for example, meant lower raises for teachers in many school districts.

School choice initiatives, including efforts to expand charter schools and private school vouchers, have helped grow enrollment in two sectors of schools that are almost universally non-union.

Some new laws have targeted teacher unions directly, such as when the legislature in 2011 placed strict limits on what issues were subject to negotiations with unions.

Additionally, new state efforts have focused heavily on teachers. A new statewide teacher evaluation system, approved by lawmakers in 2011, makes it easier to fire teachers or block their pay raises.

Countering those efforts has been difficult and, in many cases, unsuccessful. But in other ways, unions have been able to still flex political muscle or otherwise persuade legislators and policy makers to temper their reforms.

Who they represent

Indiana has two statewide teachers unions.

The larger is the Indiana State Teachers Association, which is affiliated with the National Education Association. ISTA has about 40,000 members who belong to 331 local unions. The smaller union is the Indiana Federation of Teachers, affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. It has about 5,500 members.

Most public school teachers in Indiana are union represented. They pay dues that cover the cost both of service, such as representation in negotiations with their school districts, and for advocacy, such as state and federal lobbying on behalf of teachers’ interests.

In recent years, union membership has been in decline. Partly, this is the result of budget cuts and accompanying job reductions. But also it represents a shift of some jobs to schools where teachers are not union-represented.

Charter schools, for instance, are publicly-funded but privately run. Since their debut in Indiana in 2002, the number of charter schools has now grown to more than 75. Unions have made few efforts to organize teachers at charter schools into unions.

ISTA’s troubles

Since 2009, ISTA has been embroiled in a legal and financial struggle that began with a failed insurance trust.

The fund offered disability insurance to ISTA members and allowed any savings on claims to be invested. When those investments went bad, funds were co-mingled and used to cover shortfalls. But eventually ISTA was left with $57 million in liabilities, a debt which the organization will be paying off for more than a decade.

Indiana ultimately sued ISTA on behalf of local school districts. In December of 2013, ISTA settled with the state, agreeing to pay $14 million without admitting any guilt. It was about half what the state originally sought when it filed the suit. The money was to be split by 26 school districts and could be used in a number of ways, from defraying health care costs to paying for teacher raises.

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In 2011, thousands of union members, including teachers, protested bills aimed at limiting union bargaining. (ISTA)

The liabilities and the suit were not the only consequences for ISTA. The union was sued by its former executive director, who settled for undisclosed terms. It also was taken over by the NEA, which established veto power over its day-to-day decisions and took over ownership of ISTA’s office tower, which stands across from Indiana’s statehouse.

Political problems

ISTA and IFT are strongly allied to the Democratic Party in Indiana. As Democrats have lost power, the teachers unions have seen a corresponding reversal of fortunate on the political front.

In 2010, the Democrats lost their majority in the Indiana House, giving Republicans control of the of both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office.

Led by then Gov. Mitch Daniels, Republicans pushed an aggressive program of education changes that unions opposed. Among them was the creation of a new voucher program, allowing low income families to use tax money intended for their childrens’ public school educations to pay private school tuition.

The legislature also expanded charter schools and required tough new annual evaluations for teachers.

But one new law took direct aim at teacher unions. It overhauled the system of bargaining, stripping unions of the power to negotiate most work conditions. Lawmakers complained about union contract rules, such as those that limited class sizes and the number of after school meetings that teachers could be required to attend.

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Glenda Ritz

The new law also compressed the window of time for unions to negotiate with school districts to three months between Aug. 1 and Nov. 1.

During the 2011 legislative session, Democrats fought those laws, and other efforts to contain unions, by fleeing the state during the legislative session. For weeks, Democrats huddled in Illinois, demanding Republicans relent on union and education bills. But in the end, they returned and Republicans passed much of what they had hoped for.

A lone victory

Two years later, Republicans won a supermajority in the House, to compliment its supermajority in the Senate. Along with Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican also elected in 2012, the GOP took total control of the state’s political leadership, with one exception.

The lone Democrat to win statewide office was Glenda Ritz, who pulled a shocking upset by defeating state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett. Ritz, a teacher and media specialist in Washington Township, had been the president of her local teachers union. Bennett was a close ally of Daniels, and the face of Republican-led efforts to increase school accountability and promote school choice.

Ritz was strongly supported by teachers unions, and based her campaign mostly on a word-of-mouth approach led in many cases by teachers who disliked Bennett and his policies.

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Teresa Meredith

Since taking office, Ritz has waged a public battle for control of education policymaking with Pence and the Republican-appointed Indiana State Board of Education.

A new leader

For the entire Bennett era, ISTA was led by Nate Schnellenberger, a former science teacher who rose to become union president. Schnellenberger had many public battles and debates with Bennett and Daniels over policy and politics.

But in 2013, Schnellenberger retired and ISTA Vice President Teresa Meredith was elected to replace him. Meredith was a Shelbyville kindergarten teacher who began her career as a teacher in a high poverty Indianapolis Catholic school.

Meredith has signaled strong support for Ritz and opposition to efforts by Pence and Republicans that Ritz said aimed to limit her power.

But Meredith has also been supportive of tougher teacher evaluation, saying she would like to see the 2011 law work effectively to improve teacher quality.

In 2015, teachers unions renewed efforts to combat bills aimed at expanding school choice programs, charging Pence and Republicans want to privatize more schools and education services. They also strongly backed Ritz in her battle with Pence and Republican appointees on the state board.

-Updated December 2015

The basics of...

The basics of Jennifer McCormick: Political newcomer struggles to set herself apart

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for state superintendent. A more detailed story about Jennifer McCormick’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about Glenda Ritz, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

As the political newcomer to this year’s race for Indiana state superintendent, Republican Jennifer McCormick has had to spend a lot of time telling voters who she isn’t.

She isn’t Glenda Ritz, she’s said, emphasizing that as a former teacher and principal who has spent the last 12 years as a top administrator in the Yorktown school district, she has experience as a steady, organized manager that she says Ritz lacks.

And she says she isn’t Tony Bennett, the education reform-darling who lost in a huge upset to Ritz in 2012, either.

In fact, McCormick falls somewhere between the two: She’s a career public school educator and district leader with policies not entirely unlike Ritz’s. But she also has the backing of the Republican party and advocates who’ve pushed to expand charter schools and private school vouchers.

Although McCormick has been more supportive of charter schools and vouchers than Ritz has been, the Yorktown superintendent says she’s concerned about the way school choice efforts divert money from public schools and vehemently denies suggestions that she would want to see them expand.

On the campaign trail, McCormick has tried to steer the conversation away from controversial policy matters toward what she sees as her strong suit: Her years of leadership running schools and districts.

The New Castle native has spent her career in Yorktown, a traditional public school district in northeastern Indiana that enrolls about 2,500 students K-12. Her school district is wealthier, whiter and faces few of the challenges that confront urban and rural districts across the state.

Yorktown school board president Tom Simpson said McCormick has worked to provide more computers and tablets to students and has made a point of ensuring that teachers are trained to use and teach with the devices. She’s also worked over the years to help the district adapt to its growing population.

How she’ll govern

It’s still not clear what kind of relationship McCormick would have with lawmakers if elected. Although her policies don’t necessarily line up with those of Republican legislative leaders, the fact that she brings none of Ritz’s baggage after four years of clashes with Republican Gov. Mike Pence could ease tensions and lead to smoother working relationships.

But McCormick’s lack of policy experience and adamant statements that she won’t engage in “politics” could also mean she underestimates the work needed guide her vision through the sometimes-thorny Indiana legislature.

Plus, should both she and John Gregg, the Democrat running for governor, prevail, there’d once again be a political division between the state’s top education leader and top executive, who is responsible for appointing the majority of members to the state board of education.

On the issues

McCormick’s positions on many state education issues are similar to those of her opponent. She largely agrees with Ritz on the need for an A-F grade overhaul, more school funding, and adding support and pay for teachers.

Here’s a rundown of her positions:

Vouchers. McCormick said while she supports the power of parents to choose the best school for their children, she’s not interested in expanding programs that divert money from public schools.

Testing. While Ritz has called for a new kind of test that would be given to students in chunks throughout the year and provide feedback to teachers, McCormick said she would be in favor of adopting the SAT, or something like it, for high school students and keeping a simple, ISTEP-like test for elementary and middle school students.

Preschool. While Ritz has campaigned strongly for a “universal” preschool plan for all Indiana four year-olds, funded with what she anticipates would be $150 million per year from the state’s budget, plus federal and private grants, McCormick has called for a more conservative approach — at least at first. She says the state should prioritize students who are struggling or from low-income families rather than offer pre-K to kids with more resources.

2016 Indiana governor race

The basics of Eric Holcomb on education: Moving past the policy wars

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
The 2016 Republican nominee for Indiana governor Eric Holcomb.

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for governor when it comes to education. A more detailed story about Eric Holcomb’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about John Gregg, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

Eric Holcomb has promised to be different from his predecessor when it comes to education if elected governor.

The Republican candidate says he’ll avoid the loud political fights that defined Gov. Mike Pence’s battles with Democratic state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

But Holcomb’s education policies are largely in line with Pence’s.

The Republican candidate took Pence’s place on the ballot in July after Pence dropped out of the race to join Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump as his vice presidential running mate.

As a result of his late entry into the race, Holcomb’s education policies are less detailed than his opponent, Democrat John Gregg who is making his second run for governor after losing a close race to Pence in 2012.

Holcomb has also never before been elected to public office. So, unlike the former House speaker Gregg, he has little track record of votes or positions on the issues.

But in interviews, Holcomb, 48, has emphasized a desire to work more collaboratively with the next superintendent — Ritz or her Republican opponent, Jennifer McCormick — to try to move on from the many battles between Pence and Ritz.

Holcomb also says he wants a better state test to replace ISTEP, but he has struggled to explain how his vision for the exam would be different from the much maligned test that the state has used in recent years.

Early lessons and role models

Holcomb’s mother was a teacher, so he spent hours at her side when she was grading papers, both at home and after school. He credits her as his earliest example of work ethic and the value of learning.

After graduating Pike High School in Indianapolis and Indiana’s Hanover College, he spent six years in the Navy and then got involved in politics. For the next 20 years, Holcomb worked for Indiana Republicans, but nearly all of his work was out of the public eye.

He started out as an aide to Indiana congressman John Hostettler before first dipping his toe into politics with an unsuccessful run for congress in 2000.

He served as a campaign adviser to Mitch Daniels during Daniels’ first run for governor in 2003 then stayed on, working in the Daniels administration for seven years.

In 2010, Holcomb took over as state Republican Party chairman, a job he held for three years before leaving to become chief of staff to Repbulican U.S. Sen. Dan Coats.

Holcomb attempted his second run for office in 2013 when he ran for his boss’ seat after Coats announced his retirement, but ended up dropping out of that race when Pence offered him the lieutenant governor job in March.

If Holcomb wins the election on Nov. 8, it will be his first elective victory, so voters don’t have much a personal record they can review. It’s not clear how closely Holcomb will follow the lead of the two Republican governors he served, both of whom shaped a more aggressive Republican education strategy that included more test-based accountability for teachers, students and schools, and support for expanding vouchers and charter schools.

A different tone at the statehouse

Despite his connections to Daniels and Pence, Holcomb has said he wants to set a new tone as governor that would be more cooperative than during the education battles of the last two administrations.

Under Daniels, the state expanded charter school sponsoring, launched the state private school voucher program, established an A-F school grading system and put in place a tough new teacher evaluation system.

After Ritz, a Democrat, scored an upset win in the 2012 superintendent’s race, Pence moved aggressively to block the policy changes she proposed.

The cumulative effect left many teachers feeling weary of politics and unfairly attacked.

From his introduction as a gubernatorial candidate, Holcomb has pledged to take steps to improve the relationship with the state superintendent and show more overt support for teachers.

Big differences with Democrats remain

On policy, Holcomb and Ritz are still far apart. Consider:

Testing. Ritz wants to junk the state’s ISTEP exam in favor of a series of smaller tests that could be scored more quickly and the results returned faster to teachers to use in the classroom. She has argued her approach would reduce test anxiety around the once-a-year exam for students and make the exams more useful.

Holcomb insists the state test should only be given once a year. He also has called for the scores to be delivered to teachers more quickly but has not explained how to do that while keeping the same basic design as ISTEP.

School choice. Holcomb describes himself as a strong supporter of school choice programs, like charter schools and vouchers. And he said he wants the state to take action to try to improve schools with persistently low test scores, even if it’s not necessarily through controversial state takeovers of local schools that the state tried under Daniels.

Preschool. Even where he agrees with Ritz and Gregg — that the state should expand its preschool pilot program — Holcomb takes a different approach. He said he does not think the state should offer to pay for preschool for any four-year-old who enrolls as Ritz and Gregg have proposed, just those from poor families. He also envisions a slower expansion of the five-county pilot that serves about 1,500 poor children today, perhaps a few more counties at a time.