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House panel saves ISTEP, revives proposals opposed by union

April 7, 2015

A proposal to replace ISTEP with an off-the-shelf national test was derailed Tuesday as an Indiana House committee sent the idea to a summer committee for further study.

But new proposals that affect teachers unions were revived at a meeting of the House Education Committee.

A major amendment to Senate Bill 566 completely changed the bill, which has been at the center of a stand-off with powerful legislative leaders who manage the state budget on one side and the Indiana State Board of Education on the other.

Unnerved by the growing cost for a proposed overhaul of ISTEP, Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, and Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, who chair the Senate and House committees that create the state budget, backed Senate Bill 566 with the idea that Indiana could save money by using a test other states use rather than creating its own exam.

Kenley often used the example of an exam from the Northwest Evaluation Association, which some Indiana schools use to prepare for ISTEP, as an off-the-shelf test that could be adapted to serve as the state test.

But state board members last week said the cost for ISTEP was reasonable and urged legislators to keep it. Unless the language that was removed from Senate Bill 566 Tuesday is revived in a different bill later, the state board will have prevailed. Committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said that was unlikely. Brown, he said, helped craft the amendment.

“Any off-the-shelf test would need more study,” he said.

John Barnes, a spokesman for state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and the Indiana Department of Education, had testified in the Senate that Ritz was open to exploring the idea of a replacement test for ISTEP. Barnes said Ritz and the department opposed the amendment.

“It seems to take away the entire spirit of the bill,” he said. “We would not be in support.”

Union leaders also were chagrined to see a series of changes to the bill that inserted language they view as an effort to diminish their influence and ability to serve their members.

The amended bill passed the committee 8-4 on a party line vote. It moves next to the the budget-making House Ways & Means Committee.

The union proposals come from Senate Bill 538, which passed the Senate in February but was stalled in the House labor committee. Adding that language to Senate Bill 566 puts those changes back on track for a vote of the full House.

The bill now would allow non-union organizations to pitch their services to represent teachers in contract negotiations. It would require unions to report how many members they have to the state and trigger an investigation and allow state officials to order an election in cases where unions report representing less than a majority of the teachers in a school district.

Gail Zeheralis of the Indiana State Teachers Association said the amendment created new dangers as teachers or school officials could be charged with perjury  if the the state determines the membership numbers reported for local unions are inaccurate. The bill would make the membership report the equivalent of a sworn statement under a section of state law dealing with interference with government operations. That means knowingly providing false information could result in a felony charge.

“We have this open-ended authority to a state level entity to come in,” she said. “We are creating the crime of perjury if the school district or union turns in numbers someone decides they don’t believe in.”

Caryl Auslander, lobbyist for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said the union language in the bill would benefit teachers by giving them more information and other routes to participate in debates about issues. The bill also would provide what has been described as a “teacher bill of rights” to teachers spelling out their employment rights. Unions have not opposed that concept.

“Its important for teachers to be aware of their rights, have a voice and to increase transparency,” Auslander said.

Chalkbeat Indiana is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.
 

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