NEAL: ISTA ‘Crying Wolf’ Over Education Reform

June 4, 2012


In Chicago, teachers are poised to go on strike over a pay metric they think is unfair, longer school days they’d rather not work, and class sizes they consider unreasonable.

The Florida Education Association is challenging a proposal that ties teacher evaluations to student test scores, one of several factors used to determine merit pay awards.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association wants to keep off the November ballot an initiative that would make teacher effectiveness a more important element in school staffing decisions than seniority.

And in Indiana, the union is mobilizing teachers against a new educator licensing system that is more rigorous when it comes to content but more flexible in regards to who can become teachers and how they obtain and maintain their credentials.

You’d think by now teachers unions would have embraced the changes occurring in our schools, yet across the country they persist in efforts to preserve the status quo. In so doing, they risk their credibility as partners in education reform.

For example, the Indiana State Teachers Association has battled Gov. Mitch Daniels at almost every turn: on the expansion of charter schools, on the use of tax dollars to help parents pay for private schools and on changes in the teacher evaluation process that untie it from collective bargaining.

The most recent disagreement involving teacher licensing is a case in point. A memo to union members from Indiana State Teachers Association President Nate Schellenberger and Executive Director Brenda Pike warned that new licensing rules (REPA 2) before the State Board of Education “will de-professionalize teaching and possibly dismantle public education.” The memo urged teachers to speak out against the Rules for Educator Preparation and Accountability and provided talking points detailing their objections.

“We must act quickly,” the memo said. “By licensing individuals who have no university-based teacher preparation or pedagogical training, REPA 2 threatens the quality of our profession and the future of public education.”

The rules took effect in 2010 but are being tweaked by the state board to comply with other legislation. Among other things, they make it easier for non-traditional teachers to enter the profession and weaken the grip held by the major education schools on who can become a teacher and how. A public hearing on the rules is set for 9 a.m. June 21 at the Indiana Department of Education Riley Room, 151 West Ohio Street in Indianapolis.

It’s hard to imagine how new licensing rules threaten to end public education, which serves more than 1 million children in Indiana compared with 76,000 in the private system. The hyperbole brings to mind the “boy who cried wolf” and was eventually ignored after sounding one too many false alarms.

Theirs is the kind of rhetoric that alienates the public from the teachers unions although not from teachers themselves. In the most recent Phi Delta Kappa-Gallup Poll of public attitudes toward public schools, 47 percent of respondents said they thought unions have hurt “the quality of public school education in the United States.” This was up nine percent from the last time the question was asked in 1976. At the same time, almost three-fourths of respondents still express trust and confidence in public school teachers.

That’s what the unions don’t get. Their members still enjoy tremendous good will from the families they serve, with the most positive sentiments coming from people under 40. That same public wants a variety of school reforms and guarantees that effective teachers are in every classroom.

In his book “Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools” Terry Moe of Stanford University made the case that unions are the most serious obstacle to school reform and that the only way to curb their power is to end collective bargaining.

In 2011, Indiana lawmakers limited the scope of collective bargaining with teachers unions to salaries and benefits, but the fact is unions still play a powerful role in local schools here. They’d be wise to join rather than fight reform efforts if they want to maintain their spot at the negotiating table.

Andrea Neal is adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


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