INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana General Assembly embraced Gov. Mitch Daniels’ ambitious agenda for education reform, adjourning Friday night after passing a series of monumental bills that will overhaul Indiana’s education system.

Among them were bills paving the way for teacher merit pay, collective bargaining restrictions, school vouchers and the expansion of charter schools.

Educators say it’s too early to tell how the bills will impact the field because details are still being worked out.

“There are a lot of undefined pieces and a lot of questions left to be answered,” Indiana State Teachers Association Vice President Teresa Meredith said. “Whatever you do at the local level is micromanaged by the state.”

Merrillville Community Schools Superintendent Tony Lux said making sense of merit pay and teacher evaluations will be a hurdle.

“Until the details are worked out,” Lux said, “that whole thing is fraught with potential for unfairness.”

Impacts on teachers

The state’s two-year budget sets aside $6 million for merit pay in 2012 and $9 million in 2013.

How the pay is given to teachers will rely on a performance evaluation, developed by local school districts. But those evaluations must fall under the parameters set forth by the Indiana Department of Education.

The bill, signed into law on Saturday, creates an annual performance evaluation rating teachers in four categories — highly effective, effective, improvement necessary or ineffective. Teachers falling in the bottom two categories may not receive a raise for the next school year.

Gary Teachers Union President Carlos Tolliver said the bill gives school districts the freedom to establish their own evaluation plans. But those plans must meet certain guidelines: evaluations must be given at least annually, use objective measurements of growth such as student test scores and place teachers in one of the four categories.

Tolliver is concerned about general qualities being used to determine whether a teacher receives a salary increase.

“What we have to look at is what the students’ baselines are coming into class and what their achievement rate is when they leave the class,” Tolliver said. “That determines if you are an effective or highly effective teacher.”

Its sister bill, Senate Bill 575, already signed into law by Daniels, restricts collective bargaining to salaries and wage-related benefits.

ISTA’s Meredith expects school districts are working to pass contracts before parts of the law take effect.

“Superintendents have realized along with teachers that there are so many undefined pieces to it,” Meredith said. “Until we really look two to three years down the road, until we work out the bugs, we won’t know what the salary schedule will look like.”

Rise of charter schools, vouchers

Going with the theme of school choice, the state legislature expanded the number of charter school sponsors in the state to private universities and a new state commission.

Another heavily debated bill provides state dollars to parents wishing to send their children to non-public or private schools. Financially eligible families can apply to receive a scholarship, which is essentially a portion of the tuition support the state would have given a public school to educate their child.

The rules for the voucher system are still being developed. The state will likely send the money directly to the private school after parents sign off on the transfer, said Indiana Non-Public Education Association Executive Director John Elcesser.

However, Elcesser doesn’t expect a mass exodus from traditional public schools because of the bill. There are around 20,000 open spaces in non-public schools across the state.

“Typically it happens pretty slowly and parents aren’t aware of it and aren’t sure they understand it,” Elcesser said. “We don’t envision the first year or so a great influx of numbers.”

The principal of an independent school in Schererville says she still needs to evaluate the bill but is concerned about the school losing its independence. Forest Ridge Academy requires entrance exams for students and accepts those who are at or above average because of the school’s accelerated curriculum.

“It’s wonderful for education that our children have choices, be it independent, parochial or public schools,” Cindy Arnold said. “With independent schools, we don’t want to lose our independence, so we can be true to our mission statement.”

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