The basics of education in Indiana

The basics of teachers unions in Indiana: Facing tough times

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Union-affiliated teachers attended a rally for Superintendent Glenda Ritz last year. Teachers unions led the charge against Senate Bill 10.

(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.)

Teachers unions, once a powerful force in Indiana, have struggled in recent years with financial troubles, legal woes and diminished political power.

But with more than 45,000 teacher union members across the state and a former union leader elected as state superintendent of public instruction in 2012, Indiana’s union movement remains influential and is aiming for a revival.

The stakes are high, as strong Republican control of state government has been accompanied by education policies unions view as hostile.

Cuts in state tuition aid to schools during the recession of 2008 and 2009, for example, meant lower raises for teachers in many school districts.

School choice initiatives, including efforts to expand charter schools and private school vouchers, have helped grow enrollment in two sectors of schools that are almost universally non-union.

Some new laws have targeted teacher unions directly, such as when the legislature in 2011 placed strict limits on what issues were subject to negotiations with unions.

Additionally, new state efforts have focused heavily on teachers. A new statewide teacher evaluation system, approved by lawmakers in 2011, makes it easier to fire teachers or block their pay raises.

Countering those efforts has been difficult and, in many cases, unsuccessful. But in other ways, unions have been able to still flex political muscle or otherwise persuade legislators and policy makers to temper their reforms.

Who they represent

Indiana has two statewide teachers unions.

The larger is the Indiana State Teachers Association, which is affiliated with the National Education Association. ISTA has about 40,000 members who belong to 331 local unions. The smaller union is the Indiana Federation of Teachers, affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. It has about 5,500 members.

Most public school teachers in Indiana are union represented. They pay dues that cover the cost both of service, such as representation in negotiations with their school districts, and for advocacy, such as state and federal lobbying on behalf of teachers’ interests.

In recent years, union membership has been in decline. Partly, this is the result of budget cuts and accompanying job reductions. But also it represents a shift of some jobs to schools where teachers are not union-represented.

Charter schools, for instance, are publicly-funded but privately run. Since their debut in Indiana in 2002, the number of charter schools has now grown to more than 75. Unions have made few efforts to organize teachers at charter schools into unions.

ISTA’s troubles

Since 2009, ISTA has been embroiled in a legal and financial struggle that began with a failed insurance trust.

The fund offered disability insurance to ISTA members and allowed any savings on claims to be invested. When those investments went bad, funds were co-mingled and used to cover shortfalls. But eventually ISTA was left with $57 million in liabilities, a debt which the organization will be paying off for more than a decade.

Indiana ultimately sued ISTA on behalf of local school districts. In December of 2013, ISTA settled with the state, agreeing to pay $14 million without admitting any guilt. It was about half what the state originally sought when it filed the suit. The money was to be split by 26 school districts and could be used in a number of ways, from defraying health care costs to paying for teacher raises.

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In 2011, thousands of union members, including teachers, protested bills aimed at limiting union bargaining. (ISTA)

The liabilities and the suit were not the only consequences for ISTA. The union was sued by its former executive director, who settled for undisclosed terms. It also was taken over by the NEA, which established veto power over its day-to-day decisions and took over ownership of ISTA’s office tower, which stands across from Indiana’s statehouse.

Political problems

ISTA and IFT are strongly allied to the Democratic Party in Indiana. As Democrats have lost power, the teachers unions have seen a corresponding reversal of fortunate on the political front.

In 2010, the Democrats lost their majority in the Indiana House, giving Republicans control of the of both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office.

Led by then Gov. Mitch Daniels, Republicans pushed an aggressive program of education changes that unions opposed. Among them was the creation of a new voucher program, allowing low income families to use tax money intended for their childrens’ public school educations to pay private school tuition.

The legislature also expanded charter schools and required tough new annual evaluations for teachers.

But one new law took direct aim at teacher unions. It overhauled the system of bargaining, stripping unions of the power to negotiate most work conditions. Lawmakers complained about union contract rules, such as those that limited class sizes and the number of after school meetings that teachers could be required to attend.

Glenda Ritz

The new law also compressed the window of time for unions to negotiate with school districts to three months between Aug. 1 and Nov. 1.

During the 2011 legislative session, Democrats fought those laws, and other efforts to contain unions, by fleeing the state during the legislative session. For weeks, Democrats huddled in Illinois, demanding Republicans relent on union and education bills. But in the end, they returned and Republicans passed much of what they had hoped for.

A lone victory

Two years later, Republicans won a supermajority in the House, to compliment its supermajority in the Senate. Along with Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican also elected in 2012, the GOP took total control of the state’s political leadership, with one exception.

The lone Democrat to win statewide office was Glenda Ritz, who pulled a shocking upset by defeating state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett. Ritz, a teacher and media specialist in Washington Township, had been the president of her local teachers union. Bennett was a close ally of Daniels, and the face of Republican-led efforts to increase school accountability and promote school choice.

Ritz was strongly supported by teachers unions, and based her campaign mostly on a word-of-mouth approach led in many cases by teachers who disliked Bennett and his policies.

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Teresa Meredith

Since taking office, Ritz has waged a public battle for control of education policymaking with Pence and the Republican-appointed Indiana State Board of Education.

A new leader

For the entire Bennett era, ISTA was led by Nate Schnellenberger, a former science teacher who rose to become union president. Schnellenberger had many public battles and debates with Bennett and Daniels over policy and politics.

But in 2013, Schnellenberger retired and ISTA Vice President Teresa Meredith was elected to replace him. Meredith was a Shelbyville kindergarten teacher who began her career as a teacher in a high poverty Indianapolis Catholic school.

Meredith has signaled strong support for Ritz and opposition to efforts by Pence and Republicans that Ritz said aimed to limit her power.

But Meredith has also been supportive of tougher teacher evaluation, saying she would like to see the 2011 law work effectively to improve teacher quality.

In 2015, teachers unions renewed efforts to combat bills aimed at expanding school choice programs, charging Pence and Republicans want to privatize more schools and education services. They also strongly backed Ritz in her battle with Pence and Republican appointees on the state board.

-Updated December 2015


After almost 10 years of changes to Indiana classrooms, ESSA’s headed your way. Here’s what you should know about the new federal law.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

This year, Indiana education officials are focused on shifting education policy to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in late 2015.

But given Indiana’s history, ESSA is likely to be just the latest in a long line of education policy changes.

What started with a new schools chief focused on shaking things up in 2008 turned into major legislative changes that gave Indiana its oft-cited charter school and voucher programs in 2011.

Around the same time, Common Core standards burst on the scene, highlighting Indiana once again as an early adopter and — just a few years later — as one of the first states to jump ship. Battles over replacing ISTEP ramped up in late 2015, followed in rapid succession by an election resulting in a new governor and an upset in the race for state superintendent.

Throw ESSA into the mix, and it’s safe to say the last decade of Indiana education policy has been tumultuous. What does this new law mean for Indiana? We answer some of those questions below.

Where did ESSA come from?

U.S. lawmakers passed the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in late 2015 to replace the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

The goal, in part, was to remedy a number of complaints around NCLB. State and federal officials have talked up how ESSA is supposed to give states more autonomy and remove NCLB’s rigid performance goals.

Advocates hope ESSA will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

What does ESSA mean for testing?

As it turns out, not that much — most of Indiana’s testing changes come down from the state, not the feds.

Indiana’s ISTEP test would have fulfilled most of the federal requirements, but the state trashed ISTEP earlier this spring in favor of a new test (still in the works) that will be given for the first time in 2019 — “ILEARN.”

For elementary and middle school students, ILEARN will be “computer-adaptive,” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers. In high school, students would be expected to pass end-of-course assessments in Algebra, ninth-grade biology, 10th-grade English and 12th-grade U.S. Government.

The state’s plan also includes a chance to pursue giving state tests in other languages. So far, Spanish would be the focus.

How does this affect A-F grades?

Congress passing the Every Student Succeeds Act collided almost directly with Indiana’s overhauled A-F grade model, used for the first time in 2016.

Although the new model checks many boxes when it comes to new ESSA requirements, there’s still work that needs to be done.

Indiana’s new A-F model replaces one that centered primarily around ISTEP test scores. A-F grades still factor in test scores higher than other measures, but they no longer reflect just test passing rates. How students improve on tests from year to year is also included and weighted equally with passing rates.

Beginning this school year, A-F grades will include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

What about low-performing schools?

So the timeline doesn’t change — public schools can still only get four Fs in a row before the state steps in. But once they do, that’s where the process differs starting in 2018-19.

Going forward, two new categories will replace priority schools and focus schools. Two new ones will be introduced: “targeted support” and “comprehensive support.”

At schools receiving targeted support, certain groups of students — ethnic groups, English learners, low-income students or students with disabilities — would score in the bottom 5 percent of state test-takers for at least two years in a row.

Comprehensive support is similar to what are now priority schools — those that fall in the bottom 5 percent of passing state tests; any school that receives an F grade; or any high school where the four-year graduation rate is lower than 67 percent.

If a school gets a C grade or better for two years in a row, it is no longer categorized as needing comprehensive support. Schools in targeted support have five years to earn two consecutive C grades.

Doesn’t the graduation rate change, too?

Unfortunately, yes.

As early as fall of 2018, the general diploma could cease to count in the graduation rate the state is now required to report to the federal government.

The federal calculation will likely cause rates to drop and school A-F grades to take a hit because general diploma students students would no longer be considered graduates to the feds.

Students can still earn a general diploma — it just can’t factor into state accountability grades. ESSA requires states to count graduates that earn the diploma that a majority of students get or one that is more rigorous, but not one that is less.

What happens next?

There are still some major questions lingering over how the new A-F grade components will play out next year, particularly when it comes to dual credit classes and changes to graduation rate.

Those issues won’t get solved right away, if only because the Indiana State Board of Education must officially approve any A-F grade system changes, which won’t happen until after the ESSA draft plan is completed.

The plan must be submitted to federal education officials in September. First it gets a review from the governor, who can choose to endorse it or not — no formal approval is required.

Read more of Indiana’s ESSA coverage here.


The basics of...

The basics of Jennifer McCormick: Political newcomer struggles to set herself apart

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick speaks during a 2016 campaign event.

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for state superintendent. A more detailed story about Jennifer McCormick’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about Glenda Ritz, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

As the political newcomer to this year’s race for Indiana state superintendent, Republican Jennifer McCormick has had to spend a lot of time telling voters who she isn’t.

She isn’t Glenda Ritz, she’s said, emphasizing that as a former teacher and principal who has spent the last 12 years as a top administrator in the Yorktown school district, she has experience as a steady, organized manager that she says Ritz lacks.

And she says she isn’t Tony Bennett, the education reform-darling who lost in a huge upset to Ritz in 2012, either.

In fact, McCormick falls somewhere between the two: She’s a career public school educator and district leader with policies not entirely unlike Ritz’s. But she also has the backing of the Republican party and advocates who’ve pushed to expand charter schools and private school vouchers.

Although McCormick has been more supportive of charter schools and vouchers than Ritz has been, the Yorktown superintendent says she’s concerned about the way school choice efforts divert money from public schools and vehemently denies suggestions that she would want to see them expand.

On the campaign trail, McCormick has tried to steer the conversation away from controversial policy matters toward what she sees as her strong suit: Her years of leadership running schools and districts.

The New Castle native has spent her career in Yorktown, a traditional public school district in northeastern Indiana that enrolls about 2,500 students K-12. Her school district is wealthier, whiter and faces few of the challenges that confront urban and rural districts across the state.

Yorktown school board president Tom Simpson said McCormick has worked to provide more computers and tablets to students and has made a point of ensuring that teachers are trained to use and teach with the devices. She’s also worked over the years to help the district adapt to its growing population.

How she’ll govern

It’s still not clear what kind of relationship McCormick would have with lawmakers if elected. Although her policies don’t necessarily line up with those of Republican legislative leaders, the fact that she brings none of Ritz’s baggage after four years of clashes with Republican Gov. Mike Pence could ease tensions and lead to smoother working relationships.

But McCormick’s lack of policy experience and adamant statements that she won’t engage in “politics” could also mean she underestimates the work needed guide her vision through the sometimes-thorny Indiana legislature.

Plus, should both she and John Gregg, the Democrat running for governor, prevail, there’d once again be a political division between the state’s top education leader and top executive, who is responsible for appointing the majority of members to the state board of education.

On the issues

McCormick’s positions on many state education issues are similar to those of her opponent. She largely agrees with Ritz on the need for an A-F grade overhaul, more school funding, and adding support and pay for teachers.

Here’s a rundown of her positions:

Vouchers. McCormick said while she supports the power of parents to choose the best school for their children, she’s not interested in expanding programs that divert money from public schools.

Testing. While Ritz has called for a new kind of test that would be given to students in chunks throughout the year and provide feedback to teachers, McCormick said she would be in favor of adopting the SAT, or something like it, for high school students and keeping a simple, ISTEP-like test for elementary and middle school students.

Preschool. While Ritz has campaigned strongly for a “universal” preschool plan for all Indiana four year-olds, funded with what she anticipates would be $150 million per year from the state’s budget, plus federal and private grants, McCormick has called for a more conservative approach — at least at first. She says the state should prioritize students who are struggling or from low-income families rather than offer pre-K to kids with more resources.