Gov. Mike Pence and Republican lawmakers argue that Indiana teachers need more “freedom to teach,” and are pushing a bill that would create special schools, school districts or zones of schools to try new teaching strategies.

“For a long time education has been from the top down,” bill author Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said. “Under freedom to teach, the model would be more bottom up.”

But Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s lobbyist and representatives of teachers unions told the House Education Committee today that the flexibility offered in House Bill 1009, dubbed the “freedom to teach” bill, already is allowed, and they fear the bill is a “Trojan horse” to diminish unions or allow more outside companies or organizations to manage public schools.

“It’s a snappy name for a bill that is kind of sketchy,” said John Barnes, lobbying for Ritz and the Indiana Department of Education. “In school districts all over the state, they have the ability to move forward and try to be innovative. Legislation isn’t required to do it.”

House Bill 1009 allows any two teachers or a principal, superintendent or a combination to apply for grants to create schools, district or zones of schools with with extra freedoms others don’t have to try out plans designed to raise student test scores and pay higher salaries to effective teachers. Pence listed this as one of his legislative priorities in a speech in December.

An amendment to the bill introduced today added a large second element: a section that encourages schools to follow a teacher mentoring model similar to one in use this year by Indianapolis Public Schools. The district is following a program that promotes what calls an “opportunity culture” with Teach Plus, an organization that aims to get teachers involved in education policy making and North Carolina-based Public Impact.

Mindy Schlegel, a former Indiana Department of Education official under Ritz’s predecessor Tony Bennett who now works at Public Impact, said amendment could help school districts create more excellent teachers, build career paths for them and provide better pay.

IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee agreed.

“”We believe through these roles and opportunities will elevate the profession,” he said.

Republicans and Democrats favored the idea that school districts should be allowed to experiment with giving teachers leadership roles. Under Public Impact’s model, teachers get paid extra for mentoring others and for teaching larger classes.

Even Vernon Smith, D-Gary, a skeptic of the bill and of school choice-style reforms generally, said he liked the idea of exploring redesigned teacher roles that could allow them to earn more money. Smith is an education professor at Indiana University Northwest.

“I think this kind of bill is onto something, but we may need to study it further,” he said. “I believe in what you are trying to do.”

But on the broader question of freeing schools or school districts from regulation to encourage innovation, union leaders portrayed the idea as essentially allowing whole school districts to act like charter schools to avoid regulations and union rules.

Although the bill was amended today to soften an anti-union provision — a prohibition on union bargaining for schools that operate more independently under the bill was dropped — the bill would still require unions to organize teachers in those schools separately from the union serving the rest of the school district.

Barnes also raised the concern that bill could allow more schools to operate under contracts with outside operators and generally would be less accountable to local voters as they would have separate authority from school boards.

“There seems to be a real overreach here in terms of local control,” Barnes said.

But Behning said teachers are always asking for more freedom.

“Educators have long said we want the ability to teach: ‘Get everything out of the way and let us do our best,’” Behning said.

The committee expects to vote on the bill on Thursday.

Other bills the committee considered were:

  • Accelerated degree programs, House Bill 1231. The bill would provide grants to colleges that established accelerated degree programs. It passed 11-0 and likely will be heard by the full House next week.
  • Higher education financial assistance, House Bill 1333. The bill makes changes to eligibility for National Guard scholarship extensions. It passed 11-0 and likely will be heard by the full House next week.