Some teachers and unions argue part of Senate Bill 486 would further erode teachers' collective bargaining rights. The bill’s supporters say it's a “deregulation bill” that will empower administrators and educators.
The Senate Education and Career Development Committee passed SB 486 Wednesday. Seven Republicans voted to advance the bill to the Senate floor. Two GOP senators joined the committee’s four Democrats in voting against it.
“I've spent a considerable amount of time listening to educators to understand how can we eliminate some of these burdensome regulations,” said Sen. Linda Rogers (R-Granger), who authored the bill. “Also, I believe that students are best served when decisions can be made at the local level. Although there is nothing in this legislation that says schools cannot keep the status quo.”
The bill cuts several chunks out of Indiana’s education code, including the removal of several training and evaluation requirements that have long been applied to educators statewide. Many, but not all, of the proposed changes are controversial.
“Bills like these are directly causing an effect on our teacher shortage,” said Joel Hand, speaking on behalf of the American Federation of Teachers Indiana. “And when teachers feel like and have the impression that they're not being listened to by their administration, by their legislators, they give up, they leave the profession, or worse yet, we have young people … who decide they're not going to go into the teaching profession.”
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During testimony, the heaviest criticism centered on a change to one word. State law currently says school administrators “shall” discuss issues and decisions regarding working conditions, like class sizes, safety issues and teaching methods, with their teachers’ union or other elected representative.
Jenny Whitaker is from Indianapolis and has been a teacher for 21 years.
“[Teachers] know their students best and should be involved in the decision-making that impacts their students,” Whitaker said. “Whether that discussion is about class size, cleanliness of the building, safety protocols put in place, curriculum being adopted or teaching strategies being implemented. When a student is safe, a teacher is safe.”
The bill would change the word “shall” in current law to “may.” That, combined with a few other changes, gives district leaders the power to choose whether they discuss these issues with a union representative or just a group of employees.
“Now, some have suggested that this sector takes away teachers' rights, when in fact, it expands those rights to all teachers,” Rogers said. “I don't believe that the school employer would deny any of their certified employees an opportunity to discuss issues that impact their job.”
Teachers, like Shelby Phelps from Evansville, told committee members in testimony they fear the bill would silence educators’ voices in work condition conversations.
“Although we can operate on good faith, there are also school districts that may block those opportunities for teachers to speak,” Phelps said. “Which would ultimately have damaging repercussions for our students.”
Not all teachers oppose that part. According to Rogers, members of Indiana Professional Educators, an association of teachers that oppose unions, are in favor of the bill. Several groups representing administrators also spoke in favor of the bill.
“Building professional relationships with staff is the key way our educators grow and thereby help our students grow,” said Todd Bess, executive director for the Indiana Association of Principals. “We commit to emphasizing this point with our school leaders. So all educator voices are heard.”
The bill does not change requirements for districts to negotiate wages with teachers’ representatives.