Dispute may be brewing over when Indiana schools must implement new evaluations, merit pay

The debate over whether to enact Senate Enrolled Act 1, Indiana’s new teacher-evaluation and merit-pay law, ended in late April when Gov. Mitch Daniels signed the legislation. But the debate over how and when the law will be implemented is still to come.

One likely point of contention: When will the provisions kick in for school districts that approved valid, long-term teacher contracts before SEA 1 took effect?

The Monroe County Community school board, for example, approved a four-year contract with its teachers’ union in early April. The contract provides a 1-percent pay increase for teachers in 2011-12 and specifies that salary negotiations may be “reopened” in subsequent years.

It’s generally agreed that the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from nullifying valid contracts. So the provisions of SEA 1 that clash with existing contracts – typically, provisions that specify how teachers are evaluated and how their raises are determined — won’t come into play until the existing contracts expire.

But when do the contracts expire? According to the Indiana Department of Education, if a school district and union “reopen” their contract to negotiate money matters, the old contract is finished. A change in pay or benefits makes for a brand new contract – and the district must then comply with SEA 1.

The DOE spells out its position in an FAQ: See Question 2.

But Lisa Tanselle, a staff attorney with the Indiana School Boards Association, says school law experts don’t all agree with the department’s position. “In fact, we have stated that, if a school’s master contract has specific language that authorizes ‘reopening’ of just one or two subjects, the remainder of the contract is not affected and stays in place,” Tanselle said in an email to School Matters.

This is a significant disagreement. If the DOE is right, Monroe County schools, for example, would have to start using the SEA 1 requirements for teacher evaluation and merit pay as soon as 2012-13, assuming the district and union reopen salary negotiations. If the DOE is wrong, they could wait until 2015-16 to make the changes. (Alternatively, the district could keep teacher salaries and benefits frozen and continue to operate under the existing contract and the old rules).

School districts also will be required to adopt the teacher-evaluation provisions right away if they want to apply for teacher-improvement incentive grants. The legislature budgeted $6 million in 2011-12 and $9 million in 2012-13 for such grants. For many Indiana districts, the grants are the only potential source of increased funding and pay raises for the next two years. (Monroe County schools will have increased funding because voters approved a property-tax referendum in November 2010).

A few of the SEA 1 requirements include:

— Districts must evaluate all teachers annually, placing them in one of four categories: highly effective, effective, improvement necessary and ineffective.
— Teacher evaluations must be “significantly informed” by student performance and improvement on standardized tests.
— Teachers who are evaluated ineffective or improvement necessary won’t get pay increases. If they get multiple bad evaluations, they can be fired.
— No more than 33 percent of a teacher’s pay increase can be based on years of experience or advanced degrees, which were previously the only factors used in setting teacher salaries.

It’s a big change from the way business has been done in the past – and a huge transformation for schools to pull off in just one year.

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