Senate Bill 486 – dubbed an education “deregulation” bill by supporters and a teacher “silencing” bill by opponents – could be a few short steps from becoming law after passing the Indiana House Monday.
The bill has many provisions, mostly cutting chunks out of Indiana’s education code. It reduces annual training requirements, loosens state teacher evaluation guidelines and strips out a mandate for school administrators to discuss working conditions with their teachers’ chosen labor representatives.
Rep. Jake Teshka (R-South Bend) is one of the bill’s House sponsors.
“The goal is to eliminate mandates that are either outdated or unnecessary so that our state's teachers can focus on educating Hoosier children,” Teshka said. “As we move more and more into a [school] choice environment ... there's less need for us to be so prescriptive in our regulation of traditional public schools. It's time we take off the regulatory handcuffs and allow them to compete.”
The bill’s author, Sen. Linda Rogers (R-Granger), said she plans to ask the Senate to concur with changes made to the bill by the House. That means SB 486 could head to the governor’s desk as soon as this week. At that point, Gov. Eric Holcomb has seven days to either sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.
Each of those proposed changes has faced some pushback, mostly from teacher unions, their members and Democratic lawmakers – as well as a few Republicans.
“Make no mistake, [SB 486] is a union busting bill,” said GlenEva Dunham, president of both the Gary Teachers Union and the Indiana Federation of Teachers. “Teacher after teacher shared their actual encounters and why we need that language removed from this bill. Otherwise, it's an okay bill. Did they listen? No, they did not.”
Supporting the changes are mostly school administrator organizations, their members and a majority of GOP lawmakers.
Rogers, a former teacher, said she’s heard from non-union teachers who support the bill, though none have directly given testimony on the bill at any stage while numerous union teachers who oppose it have.
The bill passed the House 63-36 as a group of teachers could be heard loudly booing and chanting outside the chamber. It passed the Senate by a much narrower margin earlier this session.
Here’s a breakdown of the major changes in SB 486 as amended and passed by the House.
Required discussions become optional
Debate mostly centers on a change to one word. State law currently says school administrators “shall” discuss issues and decisions regarding working conditions with their teachers’ union or other elected representative. The law lists topics that must be discussed: class sizes, safety issues, student discipline, stipends from grants, teaching methods and 11 other items.
The bill would replace the word “shall” in current law with “may” and delete the topic list. That gives district leaders the power to choose whether they discuss these issues with a union representative, just a group of employees or to not discuss them at all.
The change does not affect the law around bargaining for wages or benefits.
Teachers and other opponents of the bill have argued in testimony that too many administrators will use that power to shut staff out of critical conversations. The common refrain opponents use is “teacher working conditions are student learning conditions.”
“The Superintendent Association and the School Board Association supported taking away your discussion rights,” said Allison Haley, a teacher and union president in Noblesville, to a crowd of teachers gathered at the Statehouse Friday. "They say they're our allies. They say we're on the same team. I call B.S."
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The bill’s supporters – like the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents – say they don’t believe that administrators would want to shut down all discussion as opponents fear. Many of the teachers opposing the bill argued it is naive to believe that school administrators would consistently maintain open lines of communication without the mandate, like trusting a “wolf” that says it’ll listen to “the sheep.”
Rep. Tonya Pfaff (D-Terre Haute), a former teacher, argued removing the discussion mandate would cause more teachers to leave the state or the profession entirely.
“This legislature is creating more ways to arm teachers, but at the same time, we are taking away avenues for discussions of safety issues for students and employees in the workplace,” Pfaff said. “The key to any relationship is communication. And with this bill, communication becomes optional.”
Supporters also argue that the current mandate can exclude teachers who aren’t union members. Rep. Matt Lehman (R-Berne) said he recognized that the mandate has not prohibited school leaders from talking to non-union teachers too.
“I reached out to my superintendents and I said, can you meet with non-union groups? And the answer was we're not prohibited, but we run into some real problems if we do,” Lehman said. “I think [discussion] needs to be for all teachers and therefore I think this is a good language.”
To bolster a similar argument, Sen. Gary Byrne (R-Byrneville) said a teacher in his constituency told him they were prohibited from being part of their school’s curriculum committee because they were not a union member.
“I believe this bill will correct that one problem and many others,” Byrne said.
But Lori Young, an Evansville teacher and local union president, pointed out during testimony that current law prohibits schools from excluding teachers from such committees based on their union membership.
The law actually requires schools to limit union teachers’ participation in such committees to “not exceed the percentage of teachers in the school corporation who are members” of the union. There is no such restriction based on the proportion of non-union teachers.
Regardless, the changes the bill makes to discussion requirements have nothing to do with participation in such committees. Senator Byrne declined a request for more information about the supposed case he mentioned.
Many union leaders and individual teachers said in testimony that the concerns and needs of non-union teachers are often brought up by the union representatives in these discussions.
Reduced annual training requirements
Senate Bill 486 originally stripped out requirements for teachers to receive regular training on how to identify and handle six issues they may face in their classrooms: criminal gang organizations, human trafficking, bleeding control kits, physical restraint and seclusion, homeless students and seizures.
In exchange, the bill required those subjects to be covered by teacher prep programs and said the Indiana Department of Education “may” create an online portal to make those trainings available to teachers who want them.
And, the bill’s supporters noted, the change doesn’t prohibit individual schools from choosing to continue requiring these training for their teachers.
That part of the bill changed in the House after facing fiery opposition from some Republican senators who almost prevented the bill from advancing out of that chamber.
“They can be restrained in a manner that may be that of how an adult is restrained, and they can be a 7- or 8-year-old,” said Sen. Mike Bohacek (R-Michiana Shores) to the bill’s author, Senator Rogers. “So according to your bill, you don't think that that's required training for everybody in a school?”
The version of SB 486 that passed the House Monday keeps requirements for annual training on seclusion and restraint, but instead of requiring it for “appropriate school employees” the bill would make the training only required for “special education teachers and school resource officers.”
It also would keep requiring bleeding control kits and human trafficking training. Only trainings on student homelessness, criminal gangs and seizures will be optional.
The training portion of the bill received less opposition than the discussion provisions and even some limited praise from people who oppose the bill otherwise, especially after the amendment restoring a few of the training requirements. But some advocates say the reduced requirements could still put the most vulnerable students at risk.
Fewer teacher evaluation rules
Senate Bill 486’s final major change takes away the requirement for all schools to evaluate teacher performance according to some guidelines. It still requires schools to perform evaluations. This part of the bill has received the least attention and debate, but is not entirely uncontroversial – even among Republicans.
The House version adds a few more requirements to the evaluation process than the bill originally proposed. Schools would still have to report evaluation plans and results to the state, but the plans are no longer subject to state approval.
The House also added a provision requiring whatever evaluations a district uses to result in teachers being rated along the following scale: “highly effective,” “effective,” “improvement necessary” or “ineffective.”
Robert Taylor, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said he didn't “agree with all” of the House’s additions to the evaluation and training provisions.
“We do support Senate Bill 486 from the point of the deregulation and the fact that we believe it will assist in the efficiency of the management of school corporations and also assist in the efficiency of teacher retention and where the requirements are not as constraining and as conflicting as they have been in the past,” he said.
Evaluation plans and training requirements are among the subjects schools would no longer be required to discuss with teacher representatives under this bill.
Indiana Public Broadcasting's Violet Comber-Wilen contributed reporting to this story.