Bill to loosen union control of teacher pay moves ahead

Lawmakers moved ahead with a bill today that would weaken teachers unions’ control over where teachers are placed on salary scales they negotiate for all teachers.

The bill, House Bill 1004, would allow districts to decide where teachers up for hard-to-fill positions would fall on the district’s pay scale without going through their unions.

Bill author Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said the bill, which passed the House Education Committee today in a 9-3 vote, would let districts use higher salaries or benefits to recruit teachers for shortage areas like math, science and special education. The effort would notably help schools in rural and high-poverty urban areas that have the hardest time finding qualified teachers.

“I want to make sure this is as flexible as possible,” Behning said.

But the state’s largest teachers union, the Indiana State Teachers Association, strongly opposed the bill because it circumvents unions and could pit teachers against each other.

“The heart of the teacher shortage in terms of retention is a professional wage, and these bills don’t address that,” said Gail Zeheralis, the union’s lobbyist. “The consequences of House Bill 1004 will be to foster ill will in districts and buildings.”

Indiana’s teacher unions have already seen their power diminished in the state. When Republicans took control of the Indiana General Assembly in 2011, they enacted limits on teacher collective bargaining, restricting negotiations to issues of salaries and benefits. Educational issues that used to be negotiated, like class size or school calendars, are now off the table.

This bill would take even more authority from unions. Currently, the union chapters in each school can agree to let schools pay some teachers more to address a shortage, but districts are not allowed to make that decision on their own. The bill would let superintendents or school leaders declare that a position is difficult to fill. They could then decide the pay rate for a candidate without consulting the union. The bill would not allow individual teachers to contract with the district, Behning said.

Teachers unions have been a regular target for Republican lawmakers in recent years. Other bills introduced in the last two years would allow all teachers to individually negotiate their contracts

Those efforts led to a testy exchange today between Zeheralis and Rep. Woody Burton, R-Whiteland.

Burton said he has received 4,000 emails from ISTA members on various legislative issues that he described as “cyber bullying” because of the burden they imposed on him and his staff to read and answer.

“You are using a computer technique … to try to intimidate us, and it’s not going to work,” Burton said.

Zeheralis said that advances in technology, like email, make it easier for teachers to engage with lawmakers, especially during a process where bills move very quickly.

“We’re not doing our job if we aren’t using every means within our power to let those that agree with us and care about those issues act,” she said.

Lewis Ferebee, superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, said he supported that extra power for administrators to attract teachers to their schools. IPS already has a provision in its union-negotiated contracts that pays teachers more to work in hard-to-fill areas.

“Administrators should have the authority, need be, to have great flexibility when it comes to filling these positions,” Ferebee said.

The bill would also let teachers with licenses from other states transfer their licenses to Indiana if they have bachelor’s degrees in the subject area they teach and a college GPA of 3.0 or higher. Transferring teachers would also have  to pass Indiana’s teacher license subject exams.

John Barnes, a lobbyist with the Indiana Department of Education, didn’t say whether the department supported or opposed the bill, just that the licensure section would bring “unintended consequences.” Barnes said the state already allows teachers from other states to take up to a year to pass the subject exams. In the meantime, the state offers  an “emergency license” that allows teachers to work while preparing for the exam and awaiting a full review of their qualifications.

“(Teachers) already have the one-year period where they can go through and teach if they meet other requirements,” Barnes said.

Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, said she worried the new pay structure and out-of-state teaching requirements could send the wrong message to existing classroom teachers.

“I appreciate the fact that districts are having a difficult time (recruiting),” Austin said. “But I think we are really opening up a path to diminish the quality of teachers.”

The committee also considered four other bills today:

  • Teacher career pathways. House Bill 1005, authored by Rep. Dale DeVon, R-Mishawaka, would give extra pay to teachers who are rated effective and agree to mentor peers. The bill would also let teachers in their first two years of work receive salary raises even if they receive a poor rating on their evaluations.. The bill passed committee 11-2. Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, and Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, voted against the bill.
  • High school diplomas. House Bill 1219, authored by Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, would require public high schools to offer students the opportunity to earn any diploma the state offers. Currently, some  schools do not offer the less-rigorous General Diploma, which advocates say is be a better fit for some students, such as those with special needs. The bill passed committee 9-0.
  • Innovation Network Schools. House Bill 1394, authored by Behning, would require the Indiana Department of Education to reset the accountability clock for schools that convert to Innovation Network schools, autonomous schools run in partnership with an outside organization or charter school that are still under the umbrella of a school district. Currently, schools with six consecutive years of F-grades can be taken over the state. In 2017, the timeline will be shortened to four years. The bill passed committee 13-0.
  • Minority student teaching stipend. House Bill 1179, authored by Rep. Donna Harris, D-East Chicago, would let students from underrepresented ethnic groups that are pursuing degrees to become school administrators receive a stipend from the minority student teaching fund. The bill passed the committee 10-0.