Why Some Indiana Lawmakers Want to Bypass Teachers Unions to Pay Educators More Money

By Naomi Nix

Unexpected teacher vacancies are the kind of problem that can send administrators and parents on a trip down anxiety lane — and for a good reason.

The experienced high school chemistry teacher who quits in the middle of the year for a higher-paying gig across the state can leave dozens of students without a knowledgeable educator in front of the classroom. An opening for a special education teacher that goes weeks without a qualified applicant can mean the neediest students don’t get the support their disability requires.

In an era when there is no shortage of ideas on how to recruit and retain teachers, Indiana lawmakers have proposed two bills with a relatively simple solution: Give superintendents the latitude to offer those teachers who are harder to find more money.

“I just want to make sure we get the right person for kids,” said Republican Rep. Robert Behning, who authored one of the bills.

The problem? The state’s teachers unions aren’t buying it.

The debate swirling around the proposed legislation is the latest round in a months-long battle among local policymakers over how to lure teachers into classrooms in a geographically and economically diverse state — from corn and soybean farmland to the auto racing mecca of Indianapolis — in the face of declining interest in the field.

Supporters say the law could give school districts the flexibility to compete for the best educators while also protecting school districts from lawsuits alleging they are violating teacher contracts. But teachers unions worry the measure will become one more way to circumvent the power of collective bargaining.

“I just see it as opening the door for school districts…to start bargaining with teachers individually,” said Rick Muir, president of American Federation of Teachers Indiana.

Under one proposal, a school district may offer a teacher supplemental income beyond the salary specified in the union contract if it determines the position is difficult to fill. School districts would have to document why the educator’s position was a challenging hire to their governing school boards, according to Behning.

The Republican leader said offering more money is an effective tool to attract more teachers into school districts that have trouble recruiting for certain positions.

“It’s the law of supply and demand,” he said.

Behning’s bill also reforms the state’s pension system and makes it easier for out-of-state teachers to transfer their license to Indiana. It passed in the House 57 to 42 and was sent to the Senate’s pension and labor committee.

In the other chamber, Republican Sen. Pete Miller proposed a bill allowing school districts to enter into separate employment contracts and offer a different salary than required by the teachers contract with educators who teach science, technology, engineering, and mathematics or special education.

“I want teachers to be paid everything they are worth,” Miller told The Indianapolis Star. “You can’t legislate supply and demand. You can’t force professionals to make choices that are against their best interests. If we are only willing to pay a special education teacher less than market rate, then we shouldn’t be surprised that we have a shortage.”

The bill would require school districts to make the union aware of the terms of any separate voluntary employment contracts before collective bargaining begins. That bill has not made it to the floor for a vote.

Separately, state senators also passed a bill that would allow school districts to boost the pay of any teacher outside the terms of the local contract. That legislation still needs approval from House lawmakers.

“I’m not trying to disregard the union,” said Republican Sen. Jeff Raatz, who wrote the legislation, before adding that that the proposal would help give early-career teachers a well-needed salary boost.

“We’re talking about someone who is making $40,000. So if you give them a five percent raise, what are you talking about? You’re talking about $2,000.”

But critics argue that without additional state funding for schools, giving some teachers higher salaries will only hurt other the pay of others while also curbing the unions’ bargaining power to negotiate better compensation for all teachers.

Muir, the union head, argued that it wasn’t economics but the burden of the state’s test-based evaluation system that was driving teachers away from the profession.

“There is a reason there is a (teacher) shortage,” he said. “They keeping wanting to put Band-Aids on problems they have created.”

The bills are one in a series of efforts made by lawmakers and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz to combat what they say is a plummeting interest in teaching and a difficult hiring market for some urban and rural school districts. Recent data shows that there has been a 33 percent drop in the number of teacher licenses awarded to educators in Indiana since 2009.

Ritz formed a 49-member panel that released a list of recommendations to ramp up teacher recruitment including pay raises for teachers and educators who obtain advanced degrees and diversifying the tests used to evaluate teachers. Lawmakers, meanwhile, have tossed around their own ideas to stimulate the industry from free college tuition to better mentoring programs.

The idea for passing a law to offer more money to teachers who accept difficult-to-fill positions comes from the Jay School Corporation, a school district located in Portland, a rural, middle class area near the Ohio border.

Three years ago, the school system and the Jay Classroom Teachers Association reached an impasse in their contract negotiations for the 2013–14 school year. Under Indiana law, if the two parties cannot agree after a multi-step bargaining process, an intermediary designated by the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board picks between the “last best offer” from both sides.

In this case, the intermediary chose the district’s contract proposal which contained a provision that gave the superintendent the right to place a teacher hired after the start of the school year on any line of the contract’s salary schedule.

The Jay Classroom Association eventually appealed the board’s decision to a trial court in Indiana and later the state Court of Appeals, which ruled in November that the proposed provision violated teachers’ right to bargain. Jay School Corporation has asked the state Supreme Court to hear an appeal.

Lawyers for the Jay Classroom Teachers Association did not respond to a request for comment.

“The court said that provision can’t be in the last best offer because that is a salary and that salary has to be bargained,” said Julie Slavens, an attorney for the Indiana School Boards Association. “The least risky thing for Corporations to do is to bargain a beginning salary.”

That’s bad news for Jay School Corporation Superintendent Tim Long. The veteran administrator said he can’t compete for talented teachers who receive higher salary offers from nearby Ohio schools.

He hopes that state lawmakers will change the law or the Supreme Court will side with the school district and allow him to offer higher pay to highly coveted educators. Until then, his talent pipeline languishes.

“In the last year, the applicant pool has really dried up across the state of Indiana. There are lots of school Corporations looking for people all the time,” he said. “We have to be competitive salary-wise if we’re going to get people in.”


Originally published at www.the74million.org.

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