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May 13, 2013

Regaining respect for teachers

New teachers’ union president seeks renewed clout for educators.

INDIANAPOLIS — The new president of the Indiana State Teachers Association has a challenge for legislators responsible for the fast and furious changes in public education over the last four years: You try teaching.

Teresa Meredith, elected to head ISTA in late April, believes lawmakers might benefit from seeing the impact of school funding cuts, more high-stakes testing, and tougher scrutiny of teachers and schools.

“Really, I dare any legislator to take over a kindergarten class. And not just for a day, I’d expect them to do the job for a while,” Meredith said. “I don’t think most of them would survive a semester.”

She does think they’d come away with more respect for a profession that feels under siege by education reformers.

“I think they’d say, ‘These teachers know what they’re doing.’”

Meredith, a longtime kindergarten teacher in Shelbyville, steps into the role as the public face of the state’s largest teachers’ union at a time when the organization has lost much of its considerable clout.

The association, which represents about 45,000 teachers and support staff, failed to fight off the sweeping reforms ushered in by Republicans who control the Statehouse. ISTA unsuccessfully opposed a significant rollback of teachers’ collective bargaining rights and legislation that tied teacher pay to student test scores. It protested in vain against spending cuts to K-12 public schools and lost its legal fight to stop the private school voucher program the General Assembly just expanded.

Its reputation and finances are still suffering from the 2009 collapse of the ISTA insurance trust, triggered by massive investment losses of more than $24 million. ISTA is still entangled in a federal lawsuit, brought by the state, alleging the losses were tied to securities fraud.

Meredith, who served as vice president since 2007 under her predecessor, Nate Schnellenberger, praised his leadership.

“Outside of those leaders who initially founded ISTA in 1854, I can’t imagine – from what I know of the history of our organization – a much more stressful time than what we’ve been through in the last six years,” she said.  “Yet [Nate] still believes in the mission of who we are as an organization: To represent educators and to preserve and protect public education.”

Meredith is a believer, too. Her decision to become a teacher and an advocate for teachers is rooted in her earliest experience with a teacher.

From a financially strapped family with little education and who couldn’t afford to pay the fee then charged to attend kindergarten, Meredith entered the first grade woefully unprepared.

“I was far behind. But I had the most amazing first-grade teacher,” Meredith said.

She remembers that teacher, the late Sue Griffith of Shelbyville, encouraging her as she first learned to read: “She said, ‘You’ve got to learn this. Once you learn this, you can go anywhere you want to, in your mind. We’ve got a book for anything you can imagine.”

Meredith would go on to become one of the first in her family to graduate from high school. And the first in her family to go to college.

Here’s what she also remembers from that first year in school: A teacher who lost her job when her pregnancy began to show. The following year, another teacher kept her job after she became pregnant.

What changed? The passage by the Indiana General Assembly of the 1979 teachers collective bargaining law that, among other things, barred schools from firing teachers just because they were pregnant.

Meredith later learned her beloved first-grade teacher had been active with ISTA in the effort to pass that law.

Now, in her new role, Meredith sees her charge is to help ISTA regain some of its lost political footing and help teachers rebuild some of the lost respect for their profession.

“It’s important we have a place in the political arena, but that respect for our profession is important, too. We’ve got to work on that. No one else can do that for us.”

Meredith sees progress on those goals with the surprise election in November of Glenda Ritz, a schoolteacher and political novice who toppled Tony Bennett in the race for superintendent of public instruction. The former state schools chief was an aggressive advocate for reform and a quick enemy of ISTA when it tried to block some of his plans.

Meredith credits the victory to Ritz’s impressive grassroots campaign, which leveraged the influence of teachers in local communities to sway voters for Ritz.  

“It probably gave teachers the biggest glimmer of hope they could have been given,” Meredith said.

“People didn’t vote for Glenda because they didn’t like Tony Bennett,” she added. “They went to vote for her because they knew somebody who knew an educator who knew Glenda’s story. That’s why they did it. And we have to be able replicate that.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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