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Lawmakers start work on teacher merit pay bill

February 9, 2011

Indiana lawmakers have started work on one of the more controversial aspects of Gov. Mitch Daniels' sweeping education agenda: a plan to tie teacher pay to student performance.

A Republican-controlled Senate committee began debating the bill Wednesday and plans to vote on it next Wednesday. Lawmakers may tweak some specifics, but the idea is that Indiana teachers would be evaluated each year and ranked into one of four categories: highly effective, effective, improvement necessary or ineffective. Local districts would create their own evaluations systems but would have to include objective measures of student achievement.

Teachers who fall into the lowest two categories wouldn't receive any automatic pay raises. Those in the top two categories could get pay raises, but the salary increases would be based primarily on student academic performance and not on years of experience.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said the goal is to recognize and reward great teachers.

"This is a huge pillar of comprehensive education reform," Bennett said.

Some teachers and teacher union leaders say they support the idea of annual evaluations but don't think test scores should play a heavy role in them.

"Test scores are an easy, quick and — I think — lazy way to evaluate," said Nancy Papas, a lobbyist for the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, noted that other factors could be included as local districts set up their individual systems.

"This bill goes so much farther than test scores in evaluating teachers," he said.

Bennett said it's important for local districts to come up with their own evaluation systems and their own ways to tie teacher pay to evaluations — but that the state would create "guidelines and guardrails." The state Board of Education, for example, would establish measures used to determine student academic growth and would set criteria to define the four rating categories.

Some at Wednesday's four-hour committee meeting raised practical concerns about how principals in large districts would handle evaluations for so many teachers, and some objected to a provision of the bill that allows teachers to evaluate other teachers under certain circumstances.

Sen. Tim Skinner, a Democrat from Terre Haute who is a teacher, said a provision in the bill allowing charter schools to hire teachers who aren't certified would be a bad idea. Up to half of charter school staffs could teach without being certified, under the proposal.

Skinner said the provision was another example of Daniels and Bennett going out of their way to relax rules for charter schools — which are public schools that are free of certain state regulations — while tightening rules for traditional public schools. He said teachers feel under attack despite Bennett's assertion that good teachers have nothing to worry about.

"That's the case whether you admit it or not," Skinner said.

Wednesday's debate came a day after about 1,000 teachers descended on the Indiana Statehouse to protest Daniels' education agenda, including the merit pay bill. But major planks of the platform — including expanding charter schools and restricting collective bargaining — are moving through the General Assembly, where Republicans control both the House and Senate.

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