More than 100 school districts across Indiana will be closed on Tuesday. That represents more than 40 percent of Hoosier students. They’re closing to allow teachers, students and staff to participate in a rally at the state capital.
Nearly 13,000 people are signed up to stand up for public education in Indiana. The group is largely made up of teachers, but will also include students, administrators, support staff and community members.
“Ultimately we want legislators to listen and I think our goal is to have numbers that make it very difficult to ignore,” said Goshen High School math teacher Hank Moore.
What teachers want is three-fold: increase teacher pay, stop adding unfunded mandates to teacher relicensure and don’t hold teachers accountable for the state’s low standardized test scores last year.
More specifically the group is rallying to raise teacher’s salaries and benefits and change the way Indiana funds schools, and by extension, pays teachers.
Teachers want an end to the controversial externship program that started this year. To get relicensed, teachers have to spend hours at a business learning about what that slice of the economy looks for in employees--then take that back and apply it to their classroom. Teachers aren’t paid for their time while they complete the externship.
This year Indiana switched to a new standardized test called ILEARN. Scores across the state were really low. The scores impact the letter grades that districts get and can be used in teacher evaluations.
The Indiana State Teachers Association wants schools and teachers to be ‘held harmless’ from these scores, basically they want them to be used as a learning tool and not as a way to penalize schools and teachers.
None of these calls are new said Melissa Mitchell who teaches fourth and fifth grade English language learners at West Goshen Elementary School. “We haven’t been able to see the changes that we need so at this point we’re saying we need something more to happen and this is sort of our battle cry.”
Ninety percent of Hoosier kids attend a public school. According to the National Education Association Indiana ranks 36th in teacher pay, and 51st in salary increases over the last ten years.
Other states at the bottom of those lists, like Oklahoma and Arizona, have had teacher strikes. Indiana teachers aren’t striking. Many of them were taking personal day to rally on Tuesday, and with that many teachers out--a lot of districts chose to close that day instead.
“Teachers, administrators, everyone in our school corporation would prefer to have school and be with our students as normal.” Goshen math teacher Hank Moore said. “So I think the fact that this happened is an indication of just how drastic the situation has become that teachers and administrators feel that this is significant enough to close school for the day so people can go down and make a statement.”
“I think it’s bigger than just the teachers,” said Diane Woodworth, the superintendent at Goshen Community Schools. “I think a lot of community members around the state and administrators are really working to go and also support the whole public funding issue.”
“Everything that happens that’s good for teachers...is good for our students,” said Concord High School English Teacher Laura Livrone. “Whether it’s a pay raise, or reasonable class sizes, or the resources and the working conditions and learning conditions that our kids need.”
Right now if Indiana schools want more funding, they have to get district voters to pass a referendum to raise local taxes. That money then goes to the schools for everything from safety upgrades and building renovations, to teacher pay and benefits.
Though some districts have passed these ballot measures, Concord Junior High Science Teacher Erica Shannon doesn’t think the funding formula is a good idea.
“In Indiana it is falling on communities and referendums, which aren’t reliable and it’s really not fair for equal access to education to rely on those referendums to provide the needed funding”
Shannon said it creates an inequality between districts that have passed a referendum and those who haven’t. A legislated line between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots.’
Just like everywhere else, Indiana has a teacher shortage. (And this shortage is by no means a new phenomenon)
Nikki Horner teaches reading and writing to fifth graders at Concord Intermediate School. She said there’s a lot of false information out there about what teachers actually make.
“I think kind of the misconception from the public when they see out salaries splashed on news screens and on social media that ok those numbers look great but we will never get to those without state funding. And right now the current model of state funding is what we’re bringing awareness to.”
As teachers leave the profession they often cite that it’s not possible for professionals who have Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees to live on a teacher’s salary.
“You put in at least four years of college and come out and make a wage that’s so low that you can’t support a family on. That you possibly will be getting free and reduced lunch for your children. And that’s only part of it,” said Carol Robinson a retired business teacher from Concord Junior High.
Robinson said she wouldn’t encourage young people to get into teaching. Neither would her daughter Kristen Weatherholt who teaches science at Concord Junior High.
“If I were to be asked, and I’ve told this to students, is I don’t encourage them to go into teaching right now,” Weatherholt said. “I encourage them away from teaching and what she was saying, it’s unfortunate that when we have so many good educators leaving and you have less educators coming in it’s going to leave schools and classes with educators who aren’t who the student’s deserve.”
Kristen’s daughter Morgan Weatherholt is going to the rally. She’s in the seventh grade at Concord Junior High. She says she might want to be a teacher when she grows up.
But no matter what, she said, people should respect teachers. “The smartest people in the world they’re not who they are without the teachers that they had when they were younger. We need our teachers.”
Seventh grader Chloe Conley-Shannon will be at the rally Tuesday she thinks teachers will be able to get through to lawmakers because that’s what teachers do all day--make students understand.
“Most of the time teachers know, like really know, how to express what they want the people to know in a really sophisticated manner that it can really get across and really make a dent in what we’re doing and make a point.”
Chloe’s mom Erica Shannon teaches at Concord. She says Chloe asked to go but she’s glad that her daughter and other students will get to be at the rally, or at least see and hear about it. “We need to be the role models for our students. If we believe that there are injustices, that there is not fairness going on we need to show our students how to advocate for these needs.”
Ultimately teachers say the rally isn’t for them. English teacher Laura Livrone.
“Public schools are for the state of Indiana. They’re not for teachers. They’re for Indiana’s kids, Indiana’s Economy, Indiana’s communities.”
Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb has said that schools choosing to close for the day is a local decision. He said it’s good the teachers are speaking out, but he’s waiting for information from his appointed Teacher Pay Commission before he’ll support any of the changes the teachers are calling for.
Holcomb will not be present at the capital on Tuesday because he will be in Florida for a Republican Governors Association Conference that’s been on the calendar for months.
Other state lawmakers will be at the statehouse on Tuesday. It’s organization day, a day legislators return to the capital to do business ahead of the 2020 session.