- Associated Press - Monday, February 29, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - A measure to curtail the bargaining abilities of teachers’ unions by granting Indiana school districts the authority to negotiate higher pay with individual teachers was advanced Monday by a House committee.

The contentious teacher pay bill moved forward despite GOP Senate leader David Long declaring the issue dead last week.

The House Education Committee voted 7-4 to advance the bill, which is opposed by teachers’ unions and some school administrators who say such benefits should be negotiated through collective bargaining. They say many districts have a limited pool of money, which means those who are paid more could take away from resources available for all teachers.

“This bill … is less about giving a few teachers more money,” said Gail Zeheralis, a lobbyist for the Indiana State Teachers Association. She added that it’s “more about devaluing the rest of them.”

The debate comes as state officials and local school leaders have considered steps to address teacher shortages as the number of first-time teaching licenses issued by the state Department of Education has declined by 33 percent over the past five years.

Some districts have negotiated agreements allowing them to pay individual teachers more. But those abilities are on hold pending the outcome of a case currently before the Indiana Supreme Court.

Supporters of the idea say it would give school districts flexibility to fill their classroom vacancies. They say some school districts are at a competitive disadvantage because other districts with more money can recruit their best teachers by offering them more pay. But critics say the bill lacks transparency because it would allow salary agreements to be reached by local school boards during closed-door meetings.

While Long declared the issue dead last week, House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, says he wants to advance the measure despite intense efforts by teachers’ unions to scuttle the bill. Teachers’ unions targeted individual lawmakers on social media over the weekend, urging them to vote against the bill.

The measure that House GOP leaders are now advancing was previously approved by the Senate before Long had a change of heart. The Senate last week killed a similar bill that the House had previously approved.

Long called for the bill to be scrapped because it is “misperceived by some as something that would be harmful to teachers.” He said lawmakers should work with teachers and come back with a more collaborative bill next year.

Regardless, the bill currently in the House could be voted on and sent to Gov. Mike Pence’s desk for him to sign, as long as changes are not made to it. However, if changes are made, the Senate would have to sign off on them before the measure could be sent to Pence.

Education Committee member Rep. Mike Braun, a Jasper Republican, said he understands teachers’ concerns but thinks a “trade-off” between “fairness” and “flexibility” is needed.

“If we didn’t have that kind of flexibility in our own business, we would be losing out to our competitors,” Braun said.

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