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Schools chief, union head recruit mentors for children

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State school superintendent Tony Bennett, a Republican, and the leader of Indiana's largest teachers union made a rare joint appearance Tuesday to promote a mentoring program, but couldn't avoid sparring when asked later about contentious education proposals expected to dominate the 2011 legislative session.

Bennett and Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, are known for their disagreements on many issues, but came together to praise the Indiana Mentoring Partnership, which has helped recruit about 800 new mentors since it was launched last year. Both said mentoring changes the lives of children and urged adults to get involved.

The program has done well, but there are still about 1,300 children on waiting lists to be paired with a mentor who will commit at least an hour a week to a child, said Bill Stanczykiewicz, president of the Indiana Youth Institute, which launched the partnership

"There's often kind of an adversarial view that maybe Tony believes this and Nate views that," Stanczykiewicz said. "They have the exact same end goal in mind, and that's the well-being and academic success of Indiana children."

After the news conference, when asked about education policy, their differing opinions became clear on collective bargaining restrictions, evaluating teachers using test scores and school choice. Those issues are part of the agenda that Bennett and Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels will push in the GOP-controlled Statehouse once the legislative session begins Wednesday.

Bennett supports a bill that would restrict collective bargaining agreements between teachers unions and school districts to cover only wage and wage-related fringe benefits. Too often, Bennett argued, contracts include details that don't contribute to student learning.

Schnellenberger pointed out that contracts are negotiated locally and that there may be reasons for specific contract details that mandate topics other than wages. He acknowledged that collective bargaining would likely be limited since Democrats, who often support the teachers union, have no control in the Indiana Statehouse this year. But he said any bills that propose eliminating those rights, which have been in place since the 1970s, should be shot down.

"I think that's a terrible mistake," he said.

Bennett said the proposal that he and his staff have been working on would limit — not eliminate — teacher bargaining. When asked if he would support such a bill if someone else proposed it, he said: "I wouldn't support anything right now that we haven't written."

Bennett and Schnellenberger also disagree about the ways teachers should be evaluated. The governor and Bennett support merit pay for teachers and want to use student academic success — measured by test scores — to help determine how a teacher is performing. Bennett wants at least half of a teacher's evaluation to be based on student performance, while Schnellenberger said that was too much.

The two leaders also clashed over school choice. Bennett and Daniels will push for vouchers that use taxpayer money to help parents pay for private-school tuition, a move that Schnellenberger said would undercut public schools and blur the line between separation of church and state.

But despite their differences, Bennett and Schnellenberger said they hope to meet several times during the legislative session and pledged to keep things civil.

"We can be gentlemen," Bennett said. "We can be respectful in our disagreement."

"There's no personal animosity between us," Schnellenberger added.

The Indiana Mentoring Partnership has a history of bringing together adversaries to support the cause. When the program was launched last year, it drew support from Purdue basketball coach Matt Painter and Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean.

The partnership works with mentoring programs across the state. Volunteers can learn more about becoming a mentor at www.abetterhour.org.

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