The battle over teachers unions in Indiana might be on again.

A bill heard in a Senate committee today would challenge unions’ very right to represent teachers in a school district at the negotiating table with the school board. Senate Bill 538, authored by Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, would allow any “professional employee organization” that in some way negotiates for teachers, or can provide training or liability insurance, to potentially have a role in contract negotiations. The Senate Pensions and Labor Committee discussed the bill at its meeting today.

The idea brought a quick rebuke from the Indiana State Teacher Association.

“This is unnecessary, disruptive, divisive, costly and administratively biased,” ISTA’s Gail Zeheralis said. “And (it’s) probably a field day for a bunch of lawyers around the state who will take advantage of this bill.”

Since Republicans took control of both houses of the Indiana legislature in 2010, reigning in union power has been an annual debate in the Statehouse. In 2011, for example, teachers unions were restricted to only bargaining on issues of pay and benefits and banned from negotiating work rules, such as whether teachers can be required to attend meetings after work hours, or other issues, such as student-teacher ratios.

Yoder said Indiana teachers were overdue to reconsider who negotiates for them. Many schools in the state haven’t had an election to actively choose their union, or consider other options for representation, since collective bargaining began in Indiana in 1973, he said. The bill would require that schools conduct new elections to decide who negotiates for them — whether it be their current union, a new representative or even no collective bargaining representative at all — by 2017.

“First of all, (teachers are) confused over what their rights are and feel like they’ve never really had a voice in some of those discussions,” Yoder said. “This gives teachers familiarity with their rights and gives them more of a say in who represents them.”

Zeheralis said the bill would set Indiana teachers back. The changes it requires would be costly and are not needed, she said, because teachers can already choose different representatives for bargaining through a local election if they are unhappy with their unions. More elections have not occurred, she said, because teachers and districts don’t want them.

The bill could force 289 elections to choose who will bargain for teachers — at vote in every school district in the state — even those where teachers are happy with their unions, a scenario union lobbyists said would create unneeded chaos.

Sally Sloan, a lobbyist with the Indiana Federation of Teachers, said the only reason for that is to try to dismantle union representation altogether, putting teachers at risk if organizations with lower standards and less negotiating experience are allowed to represent them.

“I think the definition of (professional employee organizations) certainly blurs the definition and the goals of an exclusive representative,” Sloan said. “Unions are heavily governed. We have to comply with federal laws, we have to comply with state laws.”

Indiana has two statewide teachers unions — the Indiana State Teachers Association and the smaller Indiana Federation of Teachers. More than 45,000 teachers across the state belong to a local union. Both statewide unions are strongly allied to the Democratic Party, which has shrunk to a small minority in the legislature. In recent years, Indiana teachers unions have struggled with lawsuits, the growing competition of non-union charter schools and new laws that limited collective bargaining.

Indiana school employees must vote to form a local union and decide if they want to affiliate with one of the statewide unions. Once selected by employees, that union becomes the sole group the district’s school board may bargain with for salaries and contracts. Yoder’s bill would let groups other than local teachers unions be a part of that process.

Hoosiers for Quality Education, the lobbying arm of the Institute for Quality Education that helped write the bill, argued that unions should not be the exclusive voice of teachers. The institute is an education reform-minded organization that advocates for school choice and raising teacher quality, among other issues in education policy.

Teachers and school staff members want more freedom to negotiate their own way, said Caitlin Gamble, the group’s director of policy and research. That’s why the bill, which would go into effect for the 2015-16 school year, calls for all employee representatives to go up for regular elections and have the same access to school buildings, meetings, mail systems and opportunities to negotiate for salaries and contracts.

“Having some kind of regular vote will give (teachers) a voice to see who’s sitting at the bargaining table for them,” she said.

Yoder said the number of groups that would be allowed to represent teachers under the new law would be small: mainly just ISTA and AFT.

But Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, said the the bill actually makes the pool of potential teacher representatives much larger, opening it up to insurance companies or any company that can claim its product is a form of teacher training.

“You characterize this as just about collective bargaining,” Tallian said. “But I’m really worried about the effect this bill will have on local school boards. I think we’re creating a big mess.”

The bill would also create a new employee bill of rights for teachers and staff, which districts would be required to distribute to their employees at the start of every school year. Gamble said teachers in the institute’s teacher advisory board members said they were unaware of their rights to challenge representation or get outside liability insurance — and that’s a problem. She cited a teacher who paid union dues for years just to be eligible for liability insurance, not realizing she could get insurance elsewhere.

“(We had a teacher who) for years paid union dues, not because (she) wanted to be a member of the union, but because (she) wanted liability insurance,” Gamble said.

Yoder said he wants to work on the bill’s language to make sure the pool of possible representatives is not too large. Sen. Phil Boots, R-Crawfordsville, the committee’s chairman, held a vote until next week to allow changes and so the bill’s cost can be calculated.