Indiana State Board of Education passes controversial changes to teacher licensing rules

Teachers objected to changes

INDIANAPOLIS - The State Board of Education amended and passed controversial changes to teacher licensing rules Wednesday over the objections of incoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and a number of teachers who urged the group to slow down.

Ritz -- just weeks from taking office after defeating incumbent Republican Tony Bennett -- asked the board to table the proposal, saying it could "put unqualified teachers in the classroom."

But board members voted 9-2 to finalize rules that will make it easier for Hoosiers without training in teaching methods to move into the classroom and loosen requirements for teachers moving into administrative roles -- but they did so only after making changes to accommodate concerns raised by educators.

Board member Tony Walker said the new rules "offer greater flexibility and options" for schools but no district will be required to hire teachers or administrators that they don’t believe are qualified.

"No one's being forced to do anything," he said. "These ultimately are local decisions that should be resolved at the local level."

The new rules also mean that decisions about training programs and teacher testing will remain with the state board, rather than moving to the purview of the state superintendent, as the education department had originally proposed.

Retired teacher Jill Lyday -- who supported Ritz during the election -- told board members before the vote that they shouldn’t make such an important policy decision after an election in which voters ousted Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, the Republican who crafted the new rules. She said anything else would be viewed as "political shenanigans."

"You must respect voters' resounding support in a change for education policy," Lyday said. "Your actions will be seen by citizens of this state as purely political and having nothing to do whatsoever with improving education."

Ritz, a Democrat, defeated Bennett in last month’s general election after a low-budget campaign that appeared to turn on frustration from parents and teachers about the speed and direction at which Bennett, Gov. Mitch Daniels, and the GOP-controlled legislature were making changes in education.

But Ritz doesn’t take office until Jan. 14. In the meantime, Bennett remains chairman of the Indiana State Board of Education, whose members were appointed by Daniels. The board is expected to meet one more time before Ritz takes office.

On Wednesday, Ritz spoke briefly to the board and asked them to postpone a vote. So did a number of other educators and university officials who train teachers.

"One cannot logically argue that 1.3 million votes don’t send the message that Indiana voters are fed up," said Mary Juerling of Indianapolis, a mother of three.

Some of those who testified Wednesday opposed plans to let existing teachers add new areas to their licenses simply by passing a test.

Others said that educators shouldn’t be able to count time spent teaching at a college toward requirements for becoming an administrator.

Many said that a plan to move non-teachers into the classroom through a new adjunct teaching license failed to recognize that not everyone has the ability to teach, even if they know a lot about a subject.

And critics said the overall proposal would weaken the preparation of teachers in the classroom at a time when they are facing increased accountability for student achievement.

Still, a few educators told the board they supported the changes.

Mark Barlow, a science teacher in Bloomfield, said he is a former pharmacy owner who used an alternative certification process to get into the classroom and supports efforts to make that easier. He said one out of every seven teachers in his district came to the classroom through a transition-to-teaching program.

Still, the board made two changes Wednesday to try to address some of the critics’ concerns. They lengthened a list of content areas that could not be added to a license simply with a test. The list now includes elementary education, exceptional needs, and English as a second language.

And the board added requirements that those using the new adjunct licensing process -- which requires applicants to have a four-year degree and pass a test -- obtain training in teaching methods. The new program will be similar to one that’s used to move trades specialists -- such as welders -- into vocational classrooms at the same time they are learning teaching methods.

Bennett said after the vote that he supports the changes the board made to the proposal Wednesday.

"They were thoughtful. They were the result of public comments," Bennett said. "We have been very diligent throughout the whole process of considering public comment, making sure we were balancing quality with the idea of flexibility."

But not everyone on the board was prepared to act. Michael Pettibone told his fellow board members that while he generally supported the concept of the new rules, he had questions and concerns he wanted answered before a final vote.

Pettibone said that teacher morale is as low as it’s ever been and that the board should take more time to work with educators before approving the changes.

"If you want to go fast, go alone," he said. "If you want to go far, let’s go with others. How do we do that?"

However, other board members said that the rules were the result of a long process that included a public hearing and more than 650 comments from parents, educators and others. Some of their concerns were addressed in the final proposal, which wasn’t released to the public until last Friday.

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