The Outstater: ‘Student Learning’? What a Great Idea

November 30, 2017

READING THE NEWSPAPER ARTICLE, the first reaction was a warm fuzzy feeling of agreement, an odd sensation these days. “Education Policy Priorities Listed,” the headline read. It quoted the Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction as saying that her top priority this year would be “student learning.”

But wait, what else would it be? What have the public schools been doing all these years that makes a new, hard-charging superintendent feel it necessary to say that her job is to help classroom teachers teach?

The Indiana Policy Review spent six months some time ago answering that question. The editor wanted the ability to differentiate false education reform, rearranging deck chairs, from the real thing. The resulting analysis found that education here has more to do with hiring adults than with teaching students.

The reason was an unworkable but politically expedient compromise passed more than four decades ago called the Indiana Collective Bargaining Law (CBL). It rendered the education function of the school system unmanageable. 

A team of laws students commissioned by the foundation compared in detail the labor agreements of all 295 school districts and found them practically identical. That was especially true in regard to the clout given teachers unions to negate the routine management prerogatives found in the private sector.

That is not how it is meant to be. Individual school districts governed by elected boards are supposed to be . . . well, independent, matching the needs and aspirations of their particular students, constituents and patrons. The CBL, however, gives such extraordinary legal status to teachers unions that they have a headlock on policy statewide, not to mention the incidental political power in local school board elections. And that raises constitutional questions.

“The General Assembly stated that teacher unions should be granted these privileges because of ‘constitutional and statutory requirements’ for public school corporations to treat teachers differently than private employers treat their employees,” concluded the study. “If there are such constitutional requirements, they are not to be found within Article 8, which deals with education. Similarly, to the extent that the reference to ‘statutory requirements’ means the CBL, the reasoning is circular. It amounts to saying that this law is justified because this law exists.”

Finally, exasperating the constitutional question is a union model that is an anachronism. The model, instituted in 1973 and based on unions in the old Detroit auto industry, treats teachers as interchangeable parts. The researchers could find only two examples of employment contracts that allowed principals to pay higher salaries in areas they considered critical (both allowed raises for coaches winning regional sports titles).

None of that works if your top priority truly is “student learning.” That will require restoring the autonomy of individual classroom teachers, principals and school boards — a job no state school superintendent has been willing to tackle. 

— Craig Ladwig


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