STYRING: The teachers association lost its way

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Bill StyringNothing in politics is so constant as change. Consider the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Statehouse mavens know ISTA isn’t your ordinary actor. Every so often, some polling group asks legislators which lobby group is the most powerful, and ISTA consistently ranks on top, with the Indiana Chamber of Commerce a solid but distinct second, and everyone else in a cat fight for the distant third on down.

The association has been taken down a peg or two of late through scandal in the health insurance arm and labor law reforms. But when ISTA maneuvers in the Statehouse, it’s safe to say it doesn’t behave like your beloved bookish fourth grade teacher, Miss Smith.

It’s a trade union and often acts like one.

It wasn’t always this way. ISTA spent the first two-thirds of the last century as more of a professional association of teachers. ISTA’s transformation to trade union began just before my days in the Statehouse. So I can’t claim direct personal knowledge.

Supposedly it got into some financial trouble over a teachers’ retirement home it was trying to start in Greenwood. It had to be bailed out by its parent, the National Education Association.

The price was replacement of ISTA executive leadership by union militants, mostly from Michigan. (The NEA itself until the early 1960s had been run on the professional association model but was under assault from the American Federation of Teachers, an AFL-CIO affiliate.)

In any case, teachers won collective bargaining rights as part of the political deal surrounding Gov. Otis Bowen’s landmark 1973 property tax relief legislation (where I do have firsthand knowledge; I was in the smoke-filled room when the deal was cut).

It’s a historical fact that the rest of the 1970s showed a wave of ISTA-induced teacher strikes, including a bitter walkout in Indianapolis.

ISTA dues-payers who thought they belonged to a professional association were appalled to learn that one of their regional organizers was caught by the cops at high midnight defacing school board members’ automobiles during a Mishawaka teachers strike.

Nothing underscores ISTA’s chameleon act better than a booklet from 1926 I stumbled across in a neglected corner of my den titled “A Guide to the Study of the Old and New Testaments for use in the High Schools of Indiana.”

It’s amazing enough in this era, when the slightest mention of religion in the public square sends the ACLU into orbit, to learn that comparatively recently, Indiana had a three-credit-hour Bible study course.

What’s truly astounding is that the study guide wasn’t the product of some Bible-thumping evangelical nut cases (as the left today might describe them).

No. It was prepared by the Bible Study Section of the State Teachers Association.

Nor was this document some two-page mimeograph outline. Its 176 pages would do credit to a serious biblical scholar. No proselytizing. This was more college or even seminary level than high school.

In Indiana. For credit.

Strategists trying to fathom Middle East politics today could benefit from its historical perspective. Some of it still applies.

So there is hope. Change happens. ISTA wasn’t always a give-us-more-money-or-else trade union.

Rank-and-file teachers in Wisconsin recently voted to decertify ISTA’s equivalent organization, the Wisconsin Education Association. Bargaining laws are roughly similar in Indiana and Wisconsin.

For the sake of Indiana education, one can hope our teachers follow suit and return ISTA to its professional association roots.•


Styring is an economist, a former Indiana Chamber of Commerce lobbyist, and a former senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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