Bill promoting IPS partnerships with charters passes House

A bill granting Indianapolis Public Schools unprecedented freedoms to partner with charter schools passed the Indiana House today.

The bill no longer blocks collective bargaining for employees at those schools, a flashpoint for its critics last week. Unions, however, remain opposed, saying teachers at IPS schools could still lose contract protections at the partnership schools.

House Bill 1321 gives IPS the authority to hand empty buildings over for charter schools to use, or to hire charter school operators to run an IPS school. Under these “innovation school” partnerships, IPS could count partner schools’ test scores in district averages. Charters would get space in IPS buidlings and possibly district services like transportation and special education as well.

The bill, which applies only to IPS, gives the district a long-coveted lever it can use to guide the location of some charter schools and a way to negotiate a share of state aid, or perhaps even a portion of outside grants that charter schools receive.

Without it, IPS officials argue, the district has little choice but to treat charter schools as competitors in most cases. Each student who leaves IPS to attend a charter school costs IPS more than $8,000 in state aid. IPS could negotiate to keep a share of that amount as part of the deal when forging contracts for innovation schools.

“What IPS wanted was a level playing field with charter schools,” said Libby Ciezniak, the district’s statehouse lobbyist. “This removes the financial disincentive to partner with charter schools.”

But to the Indiana State Teachers Union, the bill creates a newly uneven playing field for teachers when it comes to their bargaining rights. The bill permits the charter operators to hire teachers for the schools they run — even if they remain IPS schools — and disregard the district’s union contract when deciding what the pay and benefits will be.

Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, tried to address that concern with an amendment softening the approach to unions. The bill originally prohibited employees at innovation schools from unionizing.

“I thought that was too much and unnecessary,” he said.

Huston’s amendment allows unions at the schools. Much like charter schools, employees at innovation schools would have the option to organize into a union if they wish.

But ISTA believes teachers who work for innovation schools under IPS’s umbrella should be represented automatically by the district’s  unions, as they are at all other IPS schools. The bill gives the charter school groups too much latitude to fire teachers if they believe they will try to form a union, STA’s lobbyist, John O’Neil said.

“We’re still completely opposed to it,” he said. “If you look at charter schools and how many people who work at them become union members, it’s incredibly low.”

Huston’s amendment improved the bill, he said, but not enough.

“We’re still fighting this,” O’Neil said.

During the floor debate, bill author Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said it was a tool IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee needed to improve schools. Ferebee, who joined the district in September, collaborated with Behning and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office to craft the bill.

“We should give him the opportunity to try to improve these schools for kids,” Behning said.

Ferebee testified for the bill last week in a House Education Committee hearing and was peppered with skeptical questions from Democrats, IPS’s usual allies. During today’s debate Democrats said the bill was an abdication of the district’s responsibilities and some focused their criticism on Ferebee. Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, said Ferebee should resign for supporting a bill no other school district would want a part of.

“It’s nothing but false promises,” Delaney said. “There isn’t one other district in the state that would beg in on this deal.”

House Bill 1321 passed 54-37. It will be considered by the Senate next month.