Senate Bill 486 would let school administrators choose not to discuss decisions about working conditions with their teachers’ union representatives. The bill also would strip down teacher training and evaluation requirements currently in state law.
“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.”
After more than an hour of debate, the bill narrowly passed 28-20. The Senate requires a minimum of 26 votes to pass a bill.
“Just want you to know that [required discussion] has been the law in Indiana for over 50 years. For over 50 years. We should respect that. We shouldn't be up here denigrating teachers,” said Sen. Vaneta Becker (R-Evansville), before urging her colleagues to vote against the bill. “But I'll also tell you that I have Republicans… who have been involved in the Republican Party for ever and ever, and they are disgusted with what the state legislature is doing to education.”
Opponents worry the bill will silence teachers' voices, lead to more leaving the profession and weaken the quality of education in Indiana. Supporters argue it’ll free teachers and administrators up to do their jobs in the way that best fits their local communities rather than responding to top-down mandates from the state.
READ MORE: Bill aims to free Indiana schools from 'regulatory handcuffs.' Teachers worry it’ll silence them
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Current law says schools “shall” discuss a list of 16 topics like classroom sizes, safety and curriculum with their teachers’ chosen representative. SB 486 would turn that “shall” into a “may.”
Rogers said her bill aims to free schools from what supporters say are “burdensome” regulations. But, she emphasized, it wouldn't prohibit the discussions opponents want to protect.
“This is only taking away a mandate, it is not taking away the talking privileges. Matter of fact, it opens up talking privileges for all teachers,” Rogers said. “Why as the state should we step in between an employer and employee relationship?”
Rogers and other supporters argue current law keeps teachers that aren’t union members out of these discussions. More than 50 percent of Indiana teachers are union members, according to the Indiana State Teachers Association.
Sen. Andrea Hunley (D-Indianapolis) was a teacher for 10 years and principal for another 10. She notes that current law doesn’t prohibit non-union teachers from participating in or seeking out these discussions themselves. During committee testimony, several union representatives said they often hear and relay non-union teachers’ concerns to management too.
However, Sen. Gary Byrne (R-Byrneville) claimed a teacher in his district 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.
Hunley tried to amend the bill to keep discussion requirements in state law.
“Of course, these schools can maintain the status quo,” Hunley said. "And I understand that that's the intent, but that will not be the impact. And I want you to hear that loud and clear from someone who loves children, who works hard for teachers, but who also gets misguided… when there's a stack of papers on my desk. And when I have 100 parent phone calls. And I'm also dealing with other things over here, it's easy to dismiss the voice of teachers. And so we have got to protect that right.”
The amendment, and several others similar to it, failed. Rogers and other supporters of SB 486 argue these concerns are unjustified because they believe administrators would seek and take their teachers’ input regardless of whether the state requires it.
“I do not believe that the school employer would deny any certified employees an opportunity to discuss issues that affect their jobs,” Rogers said. “I'm certain that principals and superintendents and school board members recognize the importance of teachers, they value their teachers and respect their teachers. And so they don't want to lose any of their teachers. And so I can't imagine that any employer would not speak to their employees. I don't think they would stay in their job very long.”
Opponents argue that is naive.
“Although we can operate on good faith, there are also school districts that may block those opportunities for teachers to speak,” said Shelby Phelps, a teacher from Evansville, during committee testimony. “Which would ultimately have damaging repercussions for our students.”
Rogers said the many teachers who have spoken out against the bill haven’t read it and have been misled about what it would actually do.
The bill would also remove certain yearly teacher training requirements in state law. Some people opposing the bill agree a few of the yearly trainings currently required may be needlessly onerous. But, they say, the current training requirements on things like student homelessness, restraint, bleeding control kits and responding to seizures can be critical.
“I think of my rural schools, I got schools that it probably would take a half hour for an ambulance to get to them,” said Sen. Jean Leising (R-Oldenburg).
Individual districts would be allowed to choose to continue requiring those trainings for their teachers under SB 486. And the bill says the state education department “may,” but is not required to, make these trainings available online, giving teachers the opportunity to choose to take those trainings themselves.
“So we're not going to teach people how to stop the bleed anymore. But they might be able to learn online, if the Department of Ed ‘may’ design a portal,” Leising said, emphasizing the word “may.” “And maybe they could learn how to stop the bleed from that. I don't know, being an old nurse, I think that might be a little hard, but maybe it would work.”
Hunley attempted to add an amendment requiring districts to at least create and publish policies dictating which trainings they will or won’t require of their teachers. It failed.
The bill would also strip down state teacher evaluation requirements in favor of letting districts set their own expectations and methods.
The bill now heads to the House.
Adam is our labor and employment reporter. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @arayesIPB.