UPDATE: Teachers union tells Bennett to start over on reform

April 15, 2010

In response to a call to start over on sweeping school reforms, Indiana public schools chief Tony Bennett fired back at the Indiana State Teachers Association on Thursday afternoon by challenging its president to declare which specific reforms the group supports.

Bennett invited ISTA President Nate Schnellenberger, as well as Rick Muir, president of the Indiana Federation of Teachers, to shares their views in a meeting in his Indiana Statehouse office on April 27. He invited the news media to observe.

“Instead of simply sharing their positions, the union leaders responded with bureaucratic rhetoric and no specifics,” Bennett said in a statement. He added, “Although our full application has been available online for nearly three months, the unions’ leaders have failed to offer any comments, suggestions or ideas to improve the plan.”

The dispute is over Indiana’s application to the federal Race to the Top competition, in which Indiana could win $250 million to support reform of public schools.

Bennett’s latest comments come after ISTA released a letter Thursday morning written by Schnellenberger to Bennett. The letter came a week after Bennett demanded support from the state’s largest teachers union for major reforms proposed in Indiana’s bid for federal funding.

“It will require a complete re-work of the original application,” wrote Schnellenberger, in the letter, which was dated April 14, but released publicly Thursday morning.

Bennett told Schnellenberger in an April 8 letter that it was lack of union support that doomed Indiana’s first application in the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top competition. He wants to try a second time to win as much as $250 million, but said he must have ISTA’s support to do it.

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.

“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. “If this is the case, Indiana will not apply.”

Last year, only 62 percent of local teacher unions signed on to support Bennett’s plan. When the U.S. Department of Education reviewed Indiana’s application, it said, “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.

“Therefore,” Schnellenberger reminded Bennett in his letter, “from ISTA’s perspective, your letter, which seeks our support for Indiana’s application, certainly does not speak to either collaboration or cooperation with our Association in developing a second Race to the Top application.”

When asked why his letter to the ISTA was more club than olive branch, Bennett said in an April 9 interview that he and his staff have had more than 30 meetings in the past year with ISTA leaders on the Race to the Top application as well as other issues.

“We’ve had numerous discussions with the ISTA, and we have not been able to get a clear position from them,” Bennett said. He said the ISTA wants to leave decisions on whether to change how teachers are evaluated and compensated up to discussions between each local school districts and its local teachers union.

“Well, that isn’t going to get it done,” Bennett said.

For more about this topic, go to IBJ blog NewsTalk.


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