Lawmakers endorse steps to tackle potential teacher shortfall

A legislative study committee endorsed a series of steps Monday that would whittle away at the authority of teacher unions while attempting to address Indiana's shrinking number of new teachers.

The recommendations forwarded to the full Legislature by the education study committee called for increasing educators' pay, offering additional job training and expanding mentorship programs. But they did not address key factors that Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, and her teachers union supporters say are behind the 33 percent drop in the number of teacher licenses issued since 2009.

"I'm really disappointed they haven't acknowledged that they are sorry for unintended consequences from some of the bills they've passed," said Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith, referring to education overhaul measures that have been adopted by the Republican-dominated Legislature in recent years, including standardized testing of students and linking teacher pay raises to student test performance.

Republican legislators have disputed those arguments, pointing to similar drops in new licenses in other states that have not made the same education changes that Indiana has. And, on Monday they pressed on with their own ideas to address the possibility of a shortage while ignoring calls by Democrats who sought a pause until a similar effort led by Ritz releases its own conclusions.

"We're getting ahead of the game if we don't know what their recommendations are," said Rep. Terri Jo Austin, D-Anderson.

One suggestion Republicans made is further exploration of a new 401k-style plan retirement plan for teachers, which they say offers more flexibility and could attract recruits who may not want to work a full decade to become vested in the teachers' pension system.

Another measure requests a bill that would allow individual teachers to independently negotiate their own salaries in areas where there are teacher shortages. A different recommendation called for salary increases for young teachers, but bypassed those with seniority.

"If we're serious about trying to eliminate the shortage, we're going to have to be willing to look at salaries," said Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis. "The salary for starting teaching is too low."

Unions worry the retirement plan option and salary negotiations could weaken their position.

Not all of the recommendations specifically addressed the teacher shortage. Others sought to address ISTEP testing length and disability requirements.

A majority of Republicans on the committee also rebuked Ritz by voting against a one-year moratorium on penalizing teachers and schools for poor ISTEP scores, which she has advocated for.

Results from the 2015 ISTEP test, which determines teacher pay and school rankings, have yet to be released following a series of missteps by the company that administered the test.

Lawmakers can choose to act on the committee's recommendations when they convene in January.

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