Teacher quality changes among low profile education ideas advocates are pushing

An idea pitched this week would aim to solve one of Indiana’s biggest education challenges — raising the quality of teaching across the state — by prodding more teachers to seek National Board Certification.

Haven’t heard about it?

A flood of proposals from powerful interests — Gov. Mike Pence and Republican legislative leaders, who control the legislative process with large majorities in both houses, in particular —  have focused much attention on issues everyone expects to be the central battleground on education during the legislation session that runs from January to April. Topics such as school funding, school choice and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s powers are expected to dominate the education debates.

But Democrats, and lobbying groups of all stripes, have their own agendas. Some of them are offering up what they think are creative solutions to other widely-recognized education problems.

On teacher quality, the Indiana State Teachers Association announced its legislative agenda this week, including a proposal for Indiana to offer an incentive of 10 years of extra pay to teachers who earn a certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a challenging credential awarded to applicants who demonstrate high quality teaching through a variety of tasks.

Indiana is way behind its neighbors when it comes to National Board certification, and ranks just 43rd among the states with only 168 teachers who have earned the credential. One of them is Ritz, who also served on the NBPTS board for a time.

Next door in Illinois, more than 6,000 teachers have National Board certification. Ohio and Kentucky each have more than 3,000 National Board certified teachers and Kentucky has set a goal of at least one in every one of its schools. ISTA wants to match that goal here by 2025. Those other states offer incentives for teachers to undertaking the difficult certification process. ISTA proposed a 10-year, $2,000 salary annual stipend for teachers who complete the credential.

“Improving student learning is intricately linked to improving the practice of teaching,” said ISTA President Teresa Meredith. “(National Board Certification) forces an individual to reflect not only on what is being taught and how, but why it is being taught.”

Hoosiers for Quality Education, the lobbying arm of the Institute for Quality Education, an education reform-minded organization that advocates for school choice and raising teacher quality, has different ideas about how to improve teaching: less regulation that it views as simply red tape.

Tosha Salyers, communications director at the institute, pointed to the battle over Project Restore in Indianapolis Public Schools as an example. When the district proposed to expand the innovative program, which raised test scores at School 99, to a second school, union leaders initially balked. They said the two teachers who designed it could not be paid higher salaries and remain classified as teachers. Contract rules meant they had to be reassigned as administrators. Ultimately, a compromise was worked out.

The institute is advocating for an idea similar to one of Pence’s proposals called “Freedom to Teach,” which would empower the Indiana State Board of Education to disperse $2 million in grants from a special innovation fund for schools that want to try out creative ideas. But the plan would also allow the schools to be released from state regulations, including laws that require teachers to be paid on a union-negotiated wage scale.

Teachers should have more freedom to negotiate individually, said institute president, Betsy Wiley.

“If I’m in a school corporation and not in the union, they are still negotiating my contract and I get whatever I get,” she said. “Maybe a young teacher is less concerned about health care benefits or retirement and more interested in the front side and salary … allowing them to have that flexibility we also think is important.”

Unions, and their Democratic allies, have strongly opposed Pence’s idea, describing it as just a new effort to limit teacher collective bargaining.

Another lower profile issue is busing cuts at schools with financial trouble.

That problem is connected to broader school funding issues, which prompted a lawsuit in Franklin Township that the Indiana Supreme Court recently said it would rule on.

Franklin is among a handful of school districts that have felt an intense budget squeeze from caps of property tax rates instituted in 2009, which have left a few schools short of funds meant to cover the cost of school bus service. In response, schools have considered eliminating busing altogether or charging parents for the service.

Lower courts have now said school districts are not required to offer busing, but if they do, they cannot charge for it.

Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, said this problem needs to be fixed and it will be a priority for Democrats.

“All the money in the world we spend on education doesn’t do any good,” she said, “if we can’t get our children to school.”