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Indiana Policymakers Spar Over Parent-Teacher Days

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A longstanding debate over whether to count parent-teacher conference days as part of the school calendar is resurfacing in the progress through the Indiana legislature of an education-reform plan jointly backed by the state's Democratic Governor and Republican school superintendent.

The controversy--one of several unresolved issues surrounding the package--has raised questions about schools' role in involving parents, while also highlighting the curious politics of a legislature that is closely divided along partisan lines..

The Senate education committee was scheduled to vote this week on the $9.5-million plan offered by Gov. Evan Bayh and Superintendent of Public Instruction H. Dean Evans, which would provide funds for early-childhood programs, classroom technology, and research on a variety of issues. (See Education Week, Jan. 17, 1990.)

The measure passed the House on a 98-to-0 vote. But the Senate panel was expected to consider several amendments, including a $26-million proposal to add two days for parent-teacher conferences to the state-mandated minimum 180-day school year.

Cutting Instructional Time?

Both sides in the dispute highlight the importance of parent-teacher consultations. But Mr. Evans and others argue that the meetings should not cut into required instructional time.

On the other side is the Indiana State Teachers Association, which maintains that the conferences should be considered an instructional activity, and so eligible to satisfy part of the 180-day requirement.

The debate began in 1987, when the legislature passed a major education-reform bill crafted by Mr. Evans and Gov. Robert D. Orr. As part of the "A+" package, the legislature added 5 days to the 175-day school year.

At that time, parent-teacher conferences were one of three categories of activities--including field trips and convocations--considered "edu4cationally related" under state board of education rules.

State education officials argue that even then, however, a full day of parent-teacher conferences would not have counted as an instructional day under the board's definition, which requires that students be present.

After passage of the A+ bill, Mr. Evans and the board removed parent-teacher conference days from their original category. In doing so, the officials allowed local school systems to schedule part-day conferences, but to set aside full days for that purpose only after meeting the 180-day requirement.

The legislature last year blocked efforts to include those days in the 180.

The superintendent has argued that parent-teacher conferences should not come "at the loss of instructional time," said Jeffery P. Zaring, board-relations specialist for the state education department. Such days, he said, "are so important that we believe we should pay" to add them onto the school year.

"This is a very important thing to do--we're talking about parental involvement," said Senator John R. Sinks, who chairs the education panel. He added that Republicans fear that Democrats are "trying to recoup" days added under the A+ program.

Mr. Zaring denied, however, that the dispute is partisan. "We fought pretty hard to get 180 days," he said. "We got them for students and we want to keep them for students."

Union Position

Rules for parent-teacher days vary widely in other states, but disputes are most likely to arise "where there is no additional remuneration" for teachers, said John Dunlop, director of collective bargaining and compensation for the National Education Association.

While the plan proposed by Republicans would pay teachers for the extra days, the ista "would rather have the $26 million invested in salary increases, smaller classes, and programs for children at risk," said Daniel Clark, the union's coordinator of state-government relations.

In view of the importance of paren8tal involvement, he said, "the taxpayer shouldn't have to pay" for the days.

Mr. Clark also noted that most of the state's school systems go "well beyond" the minimum number of hours required under the 180-day rule, which is based on a five-hour day for elementary schools and a six-hour day for secondary schools.

If "the real issue is the amount of time students spend in a classroom," the argument that conference days will erode instructional time is "a false issue," he said.

Mr. Clark said almost half of the districts, through local bargaining agreements, now require teachers to work 185 or more days--some of which may be devoted to parent-teacher meetings--and that some confer with parents after school.

"We're looking to put a state policy back in place that supports what's going on in those schools," he said.

But the Indiana Congress of Parents and Teachers favors adding the days to the calendar at state expense.

"It is very important that parents and teachers communicate ... but outside of classroom instructional time," said Mary McKinley, the group's state legislative coordinator.

Bayh Response Guarded

Mr. Bayh's voice has been conspicuously absent from the debate.

While Mr. Bayh has backed efforts to count parent-teacher conferences as part of the 180-day year, he has not taken a "philosophical position" on the issue, said Representative Stanley G. Jones, who serves as his chief education adviser. The Governor "views the addition of those days as a financial issue" that would "strain the budget too much" in a short legislative session, he said.

Because he opposes a tax increase, "the Governor has to keep his eye on the bottom line," added Nancy Cobb, his assistant for elementary and secondary education. "He understands both sides of the issue," she said, "but at this point he has to consider it in budget terms."

The debate poses a quandary for the Governor, Mr. Clark observed, because he "doesn't want to be perceived as shortening the school year.''

The issue of parent-teacher conference days, observers note, is one of several that have put Democratic and Republican lawmakers at odds.

Besides the $26 million Republicans are seeking for that proposal, they want to add about $10 million to raise the pay of teachers in Project Primetime, a program mandating smaller classes in the early grades.

Noting that g.o.p. members are also backing bigger boosts for some social programs than has the Governor, Mr. Clark said it is "an open question" whether Republicans are aiming to "embarrass the Governor and force him into a tax increase."

Partisan Maneuvering

The scenario is further complicated by the fact that Republicans control the Senate by a narrow edge, while the House is equally divided between the two parties.

One reason Senate Republicans are adamant about amending the Bayh-Evans education-bill passed in the House is because "we want a Republican program," Mr. Sinks said, and "not one of the Democrats will stray and give us the vote."

"We're concerned that Senate Republicans are seeking to inject partisan politics into something that has been very bipartisan so far," said Mr. Jones, who said he is confident that the joint agreement will prevail.

When House proposals adding funds for general tuition support and $6.4 million for Primetime are included, House and Senate education-spending plans are expected to be "fairly close," Mr. Zaring noted.

A spokesman for Mr. Bayh noted, however, that the Governor's joint bill with Mr. Evans and the 1 percent increase in tuition aid he supports already represent the largest education spending hike in a short session "that anybody can remember."

àAdditional proposals would "very likely increase the base level of spending to the point where the Governor just couldn't accept it," the spokesman said.

The Governor initially vetoed last year's budget in part because it contained a larger increase in education funding than he had wanted.

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