Bennett demands ISTA support for school reforms

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.

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