Life after Janus? The view from Indiana

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hand down a decision this month in Janus v. AFSCME, a lawsuit that argues it’s a violation of the First Amendment for unions to collect “fair share fees” to offset the cost of representing employees who choose not to join up and pay dues.

If the court rules for Mark Janus, the Illinois government employee who brought the lawsuit, the result will be bad for public-sector unions in the 20-plus states that permit fair-share fees. But unions can still be effective if they work at it, according to officials with the Indiana State Teachers Association – which has been down this road before.

Keith Gambill

“We really focus on the greater work of the association: our ability, when we join together and speak collectively, to be in a better position to effect change,” said Keith Gambill, the association’s vice president. “It’s that collective action, that coming together, that really assists us in working to make learning conditions better for our students.”

Indiana used to have fair-share fees for teachers, but the state legislature outlawed them in 1995. The ISTA, which represents teachers in most of Indiana’s 291 school districts, lost members and revenue as a result, Gambill said. In the years that followed, it lost key battles over education funding and teacher bargaining rights. But it hasn’t been sidelined, and it’s still a player at the Statehouse – despite fighting uphill battles as a group aligned with Democrats in a state controlled by Republicans.

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ISTA priorities go beyond state budget

Improved school funding is at the top of the Indiana State Teachers Association’s 2017 legislative agenda. But it’s not all about the money. Also high on the list are supporting students who experience childhood trauma or developmental delays and helping teachers get better at what they do.

The ISTA also wants to put less emphasis on standardized tests, hold schools harmless for low grades until testing glitches are sorted out, improve teacher salaries and check the growth of private school vouchers and charter schools.

ISTA President Teresa Meredith answers questions.

ISTA President Teresa Meredith answers questions.

“All of these proposals are part of putting kids first in Indiana, making kids our first priority,” said ISTA president Teresa Meredith, who unveiled the agenda Wednesday at the Statehouse while appealing to lawmakers to focus on the more than 90 percent of Indiana students who attend public schools.

A top ISTA priority, Meredith said, is helping schools implement “trauma-informed care,” which recognizes and responds to the impact that adverse childhood experiences – such as abuse or neglect, family violence, substance abuse, mental illness and divorce — can have on development. The ISTA wants the legislature to create a safe and supportive schools program and fund training grants for educators.

Meredith cited reports that 26 percent of children experience a traumatic event before age 4 and research that finds childhood trauma linked to poor school outcomes, later mental health and substance abuse issues and a shorter life span. Continue reading

Pay lags – badly – for Indiana teachers

Indiana used to have a reputation for paying its public school teachers reasonably well. Not today. Hoosier teachers have seen some of the biggest pay losses in the country over the past 10 years.

That’s according to the 2014-15 “Rankings and Estimates” report published this month by the National Education Association. The report tracks data for the U.S. schools and the education workforce.

One figure really jumps out. Indiana teachers are making 13 percent less, adjusted for inflation, than they did a decade ago. That’s the second-worst record in the nation, ahead of only North Carolina, where real wages have fallen by 17 percent.

Teresa Meredith (courtesy ISTA)

Teresa Meredith (courtesy ISTA)

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said stagnant pay adds to challenges that teachers face from state-mandated evaluation systems, limits on collective bargaining and increased scrutiny for student test scores.

“It kind of feels like we’ve taken huge steps backward in time in a lot of things,” she said. “And compensation is just one of them.”

Meredith traces some of the salary deflation to the property tax caps that Indiana adopted in 2008. Responsibility for school funding shifted from local to state taxes, and state revenues took a big hit with the recession. In 2010 Gov. Mitch Daniels cut K-12 education funding by $300 million.

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Teachers union and advocacy group – not two sides of same coin

While Indiana legislators make their usual mischief at the Statehouse, it’s a good time to look back to the 2014 elections and recall who helped them win office.

And when we focus on education, that would primarily be Hoosiers for Quality Education for the Republicans and the Indiana State Teachers Association for the Democrats. Both spent a bunch of money trying to influence key elections, especially where the campaigns centered on education.

You might think they’re two sides of the same coin, each trying to push Indiana election policy. But there’s an important difference – in where their money comes from and whom they represent.

The ISTA contributes to election campaigns through its political arm, the Indiana Political Action Committee for Education. The committee gets nearly all its money from Indiana teachers and education support staff who voluntarily donate $24 a year. Hoosiers for Quality Education, on the other hand, gets most of its funding from a few wealthy people – many of them non-Hoosiers — who support a free-market approach of education.

Based on campaign finance reports that were posted recently, Hoosiers for Quality Education spent $690,000 on the 2014 elections, nearly all of it in contributions to Republican candidates and committees. I-PACE spent almost $1.3 million, most of it going to Democratic candidates. Continue reading

Next step in Indiana’s war on unions

Credit the Indiana Chamber of Commerce with being the first to remind us, this legislative season, of the immortal words of Henry Adams: “Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.”

How else does one explain the chamber’s current push to ban the practice of deducting union dues from the paychecks of Indiana school teachers? The Indianapolis Star reports Sunday that the business group has made the issue a top priority for the legislative session that starts in January.

Chamber President Kevin Brinegar tells the Star that government entities, such as school corporations, “shouldn’t be in the business of collecting union dues or, particularly, political contributions.” Maybe or maybe not, but isn’t that a decision that local elected officials can make?

No one is forcing school districts to deduct dues from the paychecks of teachers who voluntarily choose to join the Indiana State Teachers Association or the smaller Indiana Federation of Teachers. If districts are offering to make the deductions, it’s because local school boards have agreed to do so.

And teachers can’t be required to join the union or pay representation fees, even though the unions must represent all teachers covered by local contracts, whether they’re union members are not. That “right to freeload” was written into law Continue reading

PAC spending on legislative races could influence next year’s education debates

They’re back. Hoosiers for Economic Growth, the political action committee that took credit for getting Indiana to enact sweeping education changes in 2011, is spending big money to ensure the Republican Party maintains or extends its majorities in the state House and Senate.

HEG spent three quarters of a million dollars in the pre-election period of April to October, according to its campaign finance report. Virtually all the money went to contributions to Republican legislative candidates. It gave exactly zero to Democrats.

Much of the group’s money, in turn, has come from the American Federation for Children, a national pro-voucher organization that shares an address with Terre Haute lawyer Jim Bopp, is run by conservative activists in Michigan and gets its money from East Coast hedge-fund managers and the Walton family.

Recall that HEG chairman Fred Klipsch boasted this summer that it and several affiliated groups spent $4.4 million to push through the 2011 education policies, including school vouchers, an expansion of charter schools, and performance-based evaluation and merit pay for teachers.

What kind of education votes in 2013 will HEG want in exchange for its campaign support? Continue reading

Lawsuit challenges Indiana voucher law

Judges have already blocked the implementation of anti-abortion and anti-immigrant laws approved this spring by the Indiana legislature. Will the school voucher law be next? We could find out soon.

Twelve Indiana citizens sued Friday in Marion County to challenge the voucher law, which Gov. Mitch Daniels, state Superintendent Tony Bennett and Republican legislators rammed through the legislative process despite no evidence of broad support. The complaint may be spearheaded by the Indiana State Teachers Association, but the plaintiffs are a diverse group: three clergymen, a couple of college professors, a school superintendent, a principal, teachers and parents whose kids attend both public and parochial schools.

They argue that the voucher program, which provides taxpayer funding for parents to transfer their children from public to private schools, including religious schools, violates three sections of the state constitution:

— Article 8, Section 1, which says the state must provide “a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.”
— Article 1, Section 4, which says that “no person shall be compelled to attend, erect, or support, any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry, against his consent.”
— Article 1, Section 6, which adds that “no money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.”

“This use of taxpayer funds is incompatible with the provisions of the Indiana Constitution to safeguard Indiana citizens’ freedom of conscience by ensuring that they are not compelled, through the taxes they pay, to support religious institutions, ministries, and places of worship against their consent,” the lawsuit states. “And it is contrary to the Constitution’s directive that the General Assembly provide for the education of Indiana children through ‘a general and uniform system of Common Schools.’”

A 40-page legal brief, filed with the lawsuit, fleshes out the argument and seeks a preliminary injunction to bar the voucher law from taking effect.

On the surface, the second and third arguments would seem almost a slam dunk. Continue reading