COLUMBIA CITY — Teachers got a chance Saturday to let their state representative know exactly what they thought about some education-related legislation making its way through the General Assembly.
Rep. Kathy Heuer (R-Columbia City) represents the 83rd District, which includes parts of Whitley, Noble and Allen counties, and sits on the education committee.
About 90 educators from schools across her district took up Heuer on her invitation to a public forum to share with her what they thought was wrong with education-reform bills.
Most of the two-and-half-hour discussion centered around bills related to charter schools and teacher evaluations.
House Bill 1002
This bill would provide public funding for charter schools, and give parents options for educating their children.
Heuer said the charter school bill resulted after a huge outcry from parents in large metro areas whose kids, for one reason or another, were not doing well in a public school. It had nothing to do with the quality of school, she said, noting that maybe the child was being bullied, or didn’t like the environment of a big public school. As a result of that outcry, legislators opened up charter school availability.
Heuer voted for the charter school bill to be moved out of committee and to full house debate. The bill was never voted on due to the Democrats walk-out, a fact that drew applause from the teachers assembled.
Among the issues that teachers have with the proposed charter school legislation is teacher licensing.
Teachers noted that only 50 percent of charter school teachers have to be licensed to teach at them, and it could be less if the school received a waiver from the state.
Dale Chu, an assistant superintendent of policy with the Indiana Department of Education, verified that but said that charter schools also attract professionals from outside the field of education to teach.
Mike Caywood, a principal in Fort Wayne Community Schools rebutted his point and drew hearty applause from his colleagues.
“You cannot convince me ... that just because somebody has a degree in a science or social studies or something that (it) makes them the best teacher. It’s knowing how to teach is part of it. Just having a degree is not the only thing. It’s easy to get those people and it’s advantageous for the charter schools because they’re cheaper. Charter schools are there to make money for their sponsoring group.”
Caywood also said he’d had students move from his building to charter schools, and back again.
“The kids I see going are not the kids who are having trouble academically. They are the ones who are having problems socially, who have a problem with a teacher, with me as the administrator. And you want to know something, before long a lot of them are right back in my building because once they got in a charter school it’s not what they’re looking for, it’s not to their children’s best advantage.
“So you can’t convince me that charter schools are going to be the answer to public schools. If they are, then take all the rules, that you’re eliminating for charter schools and eliminate those for public schools.”
Another issue teachers saw with charter schools is that charter schools can expel students they don’t want or who may have behavioral issues, sending them back to public schools. Concerns range from a public school teacher being held accountable for a student they didn’t have in their classroom for very long, and wondering if the funding would follow that child back to the public school.
Some teachers are concerned that, when ISTEP testing time draws near, there is nothing to stop charter schools from dumping students they know will not pass, and then public schools become accountable for them.
One solution presented was that, after a certain date, a student’s test scores, revert to the school they came from.
For Nancy Bridegam a Whitley County Consolidated Schools teacher the biggest issue with charter schools is money.
“I think with charter schools it’s that they’re taking money from public schools. ...We’re already getting more money taken away from us and we’re losing more teachers every year. I think that’s the problem with charters. When you tell a teacher that money from public schools is going to go there, instead of putting more money into solving the problems, whatever they are.”
Senate Bill 1
The goal of Senate Bill 1 is to change the way teachers are evaluated. It seeks to consider multiple measures for assessment, and to revamp how new teachers will be classified.
Currently, teachers are currently placed into three categories, non-permanent, semi-permanent and permanent. The bill would change this categorizations to probationary, professional and established, with all incoming teachers.
The bill also seeks to rate teachers as highly effective, effective, improvement necessary or ineffective.
A companion bill to SB1, Senate Bill 575, seeks to reform collective bargaining, with the state focusing on salaries and wage-related benefits. Other issues, such as working conditions, would still be discussed within each school corporation’s policies.
Teachers expressed concern that these bills removed local control
A West Noble teacher and union representative said he thought the bill took away the ability for teachers and administrators to sit down and discuss salary issues.
Teachers were concerned that language in SB 1 could be interpreted in such a way that teachers would be taking pay cuts.
State School Superintendent Dr. Tony Bennett, in a copy of a message handed out at the forum, said that is untrue, and that an amendment is forthcoming to clear up any possible misinterpretations.
In his letter, Bennett said teachers currently earning a base salary, that includes all of their years of experience and a master’s degree, will continue to make at least that much and no less.
Heuer and Chu both reiterated that teachers’ salaries would not be reduced in the final version of the bill.
Teachers seemed skeptical that Bennett’s proposed amendment to correct the language had yet to be added, as he said it would.
The proposed legislation, however, changes how pay increases would be granted. If the bill is passed and as it stands now, pay increases would be based on factors such as years of experience, student achievement, leadership roles and academic need within the district. It would be up to local school boards to determine the weight of each of the factors.
For CCHS teacher Melanie Bechtold, moving to a merit pay system would hurt the daily collaboration that goes on in a school corporation.
She said when she started teaching she had some wonderful mentors who shared ideas and best practices with her, and that still goes on today. Teachers sharing what works and doesn’t work in a classroom and with kids.
Bechtold’s concern is that if pay is tied to performance teachers will stop collaborating.
“I’m concerned that these evaluations will (end collaboration). I think a teacher who is working his tail off and giving everything he has” isn’t going to want to share with his colleagues if it could impact his pay.
Bechtold said that kind of competition works in the business world, but schools aren’t business, teachers aren’t business people, and kids aren’t widgets.
Throughout the discussion, teacher frustration with parental involvement by some parents.
An inner city special education teacher from Fort Wayne suggested that a tax credit for children be tied to school attendance. “Why not, it is no problem for the school secretary to print out an attendance report saying parents have to turn that in with their taxes or they don’t get their tax rebate. These are the same parents they want to have big screen that can’t afford to pay for shoes for their kids.”
“That might be a possible way to legislate parental involvement,” said Heuer.
Another teacher suggested that parents sign a contract that requires student attendance, parents helping their students and generally support the education process.
Linda Phillip, a teacher at West Noble Middle School, felt the education bills had little to do with reforming education and more to do with saving money on education spending.
How about dealing with the parents? she asked.
“How about if our parents are going to take this money for free and reduced lunches that we offer a once-a-week parenting course and how to help their children. If they’re taking our money, they have iPods, but no pencils, can we give them a course in financing?” Phillip said.
“I’m feeling like a Vietnam vet of the ’70s, I’m in the trenches fighting every day, and I’m getting blamed for all the problems.”
“I think it’s obvious that our teachers really do care, and they feel rejected right now by leadership in the state,” WCCS school board president Don Armstrong said afterward. “I think Kathy and the people she works with really care and want to do the right thing.”
“What I’m hoping is that the teachers felt like they were heard,” Heuer said after the two-and-a-half hour forum. “Nobody care more about our kids than our teachers.
Heuer said she would carefully review and digest all she had heard and take it back to her committee.
“I’m only one vote, and if I can’t make a difference with my vote than I have to find another way through amendments or talking to my committee and getting them to hear the teachers’ point of view.”