Teachers push to bargain for working conditions

Indiana teachers are pushing to regain the right to bargain collectively for working conditions, which the state legislature took away a decade ago. At a news conference Monday, Indiana State Teachers Association officials called on lawmakers to support bargaining on class size limits, prep time and safety conditions.

ISTA President Keith Gambill said the COVID-19 pandemic, now impacting a third school year, has made it urgent for the state to address teachers’ working conditions. “Our educators, already overburdened, are facing unsustainable levels of stress and stress-related illness,” he said.

Keith Gambill (ISTA photo)

Gambill said poor working conditions and a lack of respect have caused many educators to retire early or leave the field, contributing to statewide shortages. An Indiana State University survey found that 96% of Indiana schools are experiencing teacher shortages.

Prodded by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, the legislature voted in 2011 to limit teacher collective bargaining to pay and benefits, such as health insurance. The measure was part of a package of K-12 education laws that also included the creation of a private school voucher program and an expansion of charter schools.

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Seattle teachers bargain for students; Indiana teachers can’t

Congratulations to Seattle’s teachers. After a five-day strike, they won a contract that increases teacher pay by 9.5 percent over three years. Just as significantly, the deal includes benefits for students: guaranteed recess and the creation of panels to address racial disparities in discipline and learning.

It would be nice to think Indiana teachers and school boards might follow that example and bargain for contract provisions that help children. But they can’t. It’s against the law.

Thanks to school reform laws that the state legislature approved in 2011, teacher collective bargaining in Indiana can deal with salary, wages and fringe benefits – and nothing else.

Then-Gov. Mitch Daniels led the fight to limit collective bargaining, ridiculing teacher contracts for focusing on trivia. Unions go too far, he said, “when they dictate the color of the teachers’ lounge, who can monitor recess, or on what days the principal is allowed to hold a staff meeting.”

No doubt some contracts were loaded with red tape. When there’s no money on the table, sometimes you bargain for other things. But the idea that teachers would only bargain for side benefits that are bad for kids – pushed implicitly by Daniels and some legislators – doesn’t add up. As an Indiana State Teachers Association lobbyist told lawmakers in 2011, teachers’ working conditions tend to be students’ learning conditions.

The Seattle contract, which teachers and other school employees approved Sunday, also includes changes in school-day and teacher-evaluation rules and creation of a district-union committee to study ways to reduce the impact of excessive testing. The vote was strongly in favor of the deal despite concerns that teacher pay falls short in a city with one of the highest costs of living in the country.

Some experts say the agreement, with its focus on what’s good for students, is a harbinger of things to come. “Teachers are positioning themselves to be about much more than raising their own pay,” University of Illinois professor Bob Bruno told the Associated Press.

But if student-focused bargaining becomes a trend, Indiana will be left behind.


Indiana education reforms: research-based … or not?

Are the education reforms that the Indiana General Assembly approved really “based on substantial research,” as the state Department of Education claimed in a recent message? Or are they faith-based, relying on an ideology that says the market is good and unions are bad?

It’s easy to be cynical about vouchers, charter schools and merit pay – and to assume the Mitch Daniels-Tony Bennett agenda is simply about paying off business supporters and busting teachers’ unions.

But listen to Gov. Daniels tear up as he celebrates his legislative successes at a bill-signing ceremony for Senate Bill 1, the teacher merit-pay bill. He seems to truly believe he is doing what is best for children. (And never mind that he repeats, yet again, the bogus claim that teacher quality is 20 times more important than any other factor in student learning).

Still, research or faith, that’s the question.

School Matters asked the Department of Education to cite research showing that: 1) merit pay will benefit students; 2) more charter schools will benefit students; 3) vouchers will benefit all students, not just those who transfer to private schools; and 4) collective bargaining for teachers hurts students.

To their great credit, the DOE media folks replied with an extensive list. We’ll summarize, providing links so you can judge for yourself:

Merit pay – The department provided references to studies and white papers on this topic, but none showed evidence that a U.S. merit-pay system, on its own, had produced improvements in learning. A number of the links show that teaching matters; well, no one argues that it doesn’t. Several came from Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond and the Colorado-based National Center for Education Policy, both adamant foes of merit pay based on test scores. There’s a study that shows small student improvement from the TAP system, which includes merit pay; another that shows benefits from teacher bonuses for school-level improvement, a cross-national study of merit pay, and a study from India.

DOE made no reference to recent studies from New York and Tennessee that showed no positive effects from merit pay.

Charter schools – The department cited the Stanford CREDO study that found charter schools in Indiana produce slightly more improvement in test scores than traditional public schools. But that study doesn’t argue for increasing the number of charter schools, as provided for in HB 1002. The author said Indiana charter schools may do well because only a few organizations have been allowed to award charters and the schools are well regulated.

Vouchers – The “research” cited is a series of talking points straight from the Foundation for School Choice, a voucher advocacy organization, and a book from the libertarian Cato Institute. Not mentioned were studies and reports that found little or no academic benefit for students in voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington, D.C.

Collective bargaining – There’s a Brookings Institution paper that calls collective bargaining an “anachronism” and advocates its overhaul; a couple of studies that suggest getting rid of collective bargaining reduces teacher absenteeism; and a study from New Mexico that finds bargaining agreements helped high-achieving students and hurt low-achieving students.

So what does one make of all this? The studies on vouchers and charter schools are, at best, mixed. And there’s no evidence that implementing merit pay or weakening unions has helped students, possibly because it hasn’t been widely tried or possibly because it’s just not a good idea.

As school-reform advocate Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute has written, “To a frustrating degree, the conclusions one draws from the educational-performance evidence depend on which experts one trusts.”

You can pick your studies and argue that maybe, just maybe, schools will improve under the changes Indiana has adopted. But to think the legislation is sure to make a significant, positive difference for students – well, that takes a leap of faith.