Bennett demands ISTA support for school reforms

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Indiana failed to win money for schools in the first round of the federal Race to the Top competition in large part because its reform plan was not embraced by teachers union leaders around the state.

That’s the assessment of Tony Bennett, Indiana superintendent of public instruction, who wants to grab up to $250 million in money set aside by the U.S. Department of Education.

So, in a letter released Friday morning, he insists that the Indiana State Teachers Association sign on to the key element of Bennett’s reforms—or else Indiana won’t even try for money in the second round of the competition.

The main thrust of Bennett’s plan, dubbed Fast Forward, is to tie teacher evaluations and pay to the annual growth demonstrated by their students on standardized tests.

“Given the scoring rubric as it was applied by the Round 1 reviewers, it is clear that if ISTA will not agree to these basic principles, Indiana will fail in Round 2,” Bennett wrote in the letter, dated April 8. “If this is the case, Indiana will not apply.”

Bennett’s letter was addressed to Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, which represents the majority of public school teachers statewide.

Schnellenberger wrote a letter of support for Bennett’s plan as part of Indiana’s application for Race to the Top funds. But his letter was “very cautious,” according to reviewers at the U.S. Department of Education.

In addition, only 62 percent of local teacher unions signed on to support Bennett’s plan. The amount of support is important because Bennett’s desire to base more of teacher pay on student performance would have to be negotiated in local union contracts—unless he could convince the state Legislature to require it by law.

Bennett asked Schnellenberger to give written support for basing 51 percent of the evaluation of both teachers and principals on student growth in test scores. He also wants ISTA to support legislation requiring the use of student-growth data in school decisions about hiring, firing, promoting and paying teachers.

“A recommendation from ISTA carries significant weight with the local [unions], and a strong message will encourage them to support the application,” Bennett wrote. “For this reason, we need your support, we need it in writing, and we need it soon.”

ISTA has yet to issue a response to Bennett’s letter. The group did not immediately return a phone call to IBJ seeking comment.

“Linking evaluations to student growth is a big step; and if they can get agreement from the local unions would be even more impressive,” the Race to the Top reviewers wrote. But, they added, “the lack of full union support raises concerns about how realistic it will be to implement the described plan.”

The two states that did win money in the first round of competition—Delaware and Tennessee—had the support of 100 percent and 93 percent, respectively, of their teacher unions.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that level of buy-in is key to make reform a reality.

“It is easy to be bold if no one buys in and it is easy to get buy-in if you are not bold,” he wrote in a blog post on Tuesday. “Neither matter much at all if you are not successful in reaching the kids in the classroom, and the bottom line is you must show results.”

The Race to the Top competition received $4.35 billion from the federal stimulus bill to encourage public school reform in states.


  • E NUFF!
    Enough S-A-I-D! All three comments are spot-on!
  • Yes, again!
    YES YES. Tell the truth, shame the phony!
  • Yes!
  • Daniels Puppet
    Since Bennett has been in his position, he has done nothing but run with Daniels ideas and ram them down everyone's throats. He threatens, makes demands, and pouts like a 2 yr old when things do not go his way. I do not like paying the union $700 a year of my already small salary. If Bennett wants to gets rid of unions, a few things need to happen. 1. Protection for teachers with zealous principals. 2. Legal protection, especially male teachers, from false accusations of kids. (This is the main reason many teachers are in the union) 3. Give teachers back a couple of their professional development half days. I am willing to work a couple days longer for the same pay. 4. Equal pay to the bottom 40th percentile in compensation for college graduates. 5. adjust the new licensing rules to make it easier for adults who want to be middle school teachers. ex. A 7th grade math teachers does not need advanced levels of calculus. 6. A standardized test that actually assesses kids on useful skills. How many of us really use a protractor? 8.Treat us as educated professionals that are in the filed daily and know what we are up against. Until these things happen, the union has plenty to fight for.
  • The Bucks Stops With Tony
    Itâ??s worth examining why the state didnâ??t emerge as a finalist. States were scored by independent reviewers on a 500-point scale tied to specific criteria, and itâ??s tough to ignore some glaring points:

    â?¢The states that emerged have strong central education agencies. In Bennett, Indianaâ??s Department of Education has a novice leader who fired about 100 experienced employees when he took office. Indianaâ??s application is filled with references to initiatives undertaken in just the last year, suggesting improvement wasnâ??t an ongoing effort. The proposal either ignores or dismisses improvement efforts made under Suellen Reed, Bennettâ??s predecessor, even though her efforts were well regarded.

    â?¢Federal reviewers couldnâ??t have overlooked Indianaâ??s $300 million in school budget cuts. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been insistent that stimulus dollars must not supplant state support for education.

    â?¢Unlike Georgiaâ??s Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, whose state is now a finalist, Gov. Mitch Daniels has never positioned himself as an â??education governorâ??; slashing school funding confirmed that heâ??s not.

    â?¢Danielsâ?? comments to Dan Balz of the Washington Post last month put him in line as a potential challenger to President Obama. Louisiana, another Race to the Top finalist, might have a candidate in Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, but if heâ??s thinking of running, he hasnâ??t admitted it to a D.C. reporter.

    â?¢Charter school restrictions werenâ??t a deal-breaker. Kentucky has no charter schools; New York and Ohio rejected the federal push to lift the limits on charter school authorizations.

    Comments trying to blame the state's initial failure on teachers/unions/ & charter schools are not helpful or accurate.

    • 2-way street / Compromise
      Well, if he want support, he must go and ask them what he and the state must do to get their cooperation. You don't go and demand their support or else. That is called extorsion. He needs to go back to school himself and learn something about government in a democracy-not dictatorship. He needs to learn how to compromise and work out a deal and put to bed this all or nothing attitude. Otherwise, I think the teachers union will learn from the GOP book of just say NO

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