More than 200 Hancock County teachers to attend Statehouse rally

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HANCOCK COUNTY — It’s not just about higher pay, teachers say. They want state lawmakers to take them seriously.

That’s why more than 13,000 people — including so many Hancock County educators that three districts have called off classes for the day — plan to flock to the Statehouse on Tuesday. The show of force is designed to command lawmakers’ attention at the Indiana General Assembly’s annual organization day, the ceremonial start to the 2020 legislative session.

The response to the Indiana State Teachers Association’s “Red for Ed Action Day” caused about 130 out of the state’s 291 public school districts to either close school or use e-learning days because so many teachers requested personal days off to attend.

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In Hancock County, Greenfield-Central, Mt. Vernon and Southern Hancock schools have canceled classes Tuesday. Greenfield-Central and Mt. Vernon will have e-learning days, and Southern Hancock will make up the school day on President’s Day on Feb. 17. Eastern Hancock schools will remain open.

Close to 200 teachers from county school districts requested to be off, officials say. Teachers and administrators say the response is unprecedented.

Harold Olin, superintendent of Greenfield-Central, said the administration is supportive of teachers’ right to assemble at the Statehouse. Jack Parker, superintendent of Mt. Vernon; Lisa Lantrip, superintendent of Southern Hancock; and Dave Pfaff, superintendent of Eastern Hancock, likewise backed the decisions of teachers.

“I support our teachers in advocating for adequate school funding that keeps pace with annual inflation rates and responsible school reform measures,” Lantrip wrote in a letter sent home to parents.

Pfaff, whose corporation chose not to cancel classes on Tuesday, said being a “good teacher” is a “draining job.”

“Good teachers pour their heart into their work, and the lack of respect with which they have been treated over the last ten years is heartbreaking and dangerous for Indiana’s future,” Pfaff said.

School funding, which includes teacher pay, is among the top priorities for ISTA to express Tuesday, according to talking points for the rally. Per-pupil funding follows the student, so the state limits the amount of money given to each corporation based on student enrollment and other factors based on socioeconomic factors. Educators say that can disadvantage certain schools, especially in rural and urban districts that aren’t seeing much housing development or have higher rates of poverty.

A GOP spending plan the Indiana General Assembly passed in April increased school funding by 2.5% each of the next two years. Gov. Eric Holcomb told the Daily Reporter earlier this year that the state has prioritized K-12 education as its No. 1 expenditure, saying he hopes to find a “sustainable way” to increase school funding. At the time, his administration was resisting calls for a one-time infusion from the state’s $2 billion in cash reserves.

An analysis provided by Democrats shows the two-year budget increases traditional school funding by about 2% a year, while charter schools will see 10% more money and private school voucher funding goes up 9% the first budget year and about 5.5% the second year.

From 2000 to 2017, the constant pay for teachers in Indiana — pay adjusted for the cost of living — dropped nearly 16 percent, the worst in the country, according to the National Education Association.

Over the past few weeks, each Hancock County school district has ratified teacher contracts for the 2019-20 school year that included boosts in pay ranging from $1,500 to $2,500 per teacher. State education reform in 2011, however, has made it harder for younger teachers to earn consistent salary increases like in the past, said Russell Wiley, president of the Greenfield-Central Classroom Teachers’ Association.

Wiley said teachers don’t expect hefty salaries; they just want to get paid similarly to those in other Midwestern states. Salary growth for Hoosier teachers amounted to $6,904 over 15 years, according to the Rockefeller Institute. Teacher pay in Illinois grew by $19,451; and Ohio’s increased by $15,680.

But teachers say the Red for Ed rally isn’t about teachers making a money grab. They say lawmakers haven’t listened to their concerns for years.

“You’re not going to have 44% of the state’s school corporations closing over a few teachers who are upset about the amount of money that they make. Teachers and schools wouldn’t come out in these numbers if it was just about money,” said Megan Wallace, an English teacher at Eastern Hancock High School.

Wallace, who plans to join about eight other Eastern Hancock teachers at the Statehouse, said many public school teachers have felt “disadvantaged” due to state decisions a decade ago.

Following education policy changes under former Gov. Mitch Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett in 2011, Indiana instituted a voucher program that allows families to chose to enroll their children at private schools using state money. That shifts state funding from public schools to private schools. Daniels and Bennett also pushed for changes to collective bargaining guidelines.

Also, standardized testing has grown in schools — and so has its cost. Indiana’s new ILEARN test is priced at $45 million over three years. Wallace said instead of spending millions of dollars and weeks of instructional time on testing, that money should instead go to local schools.

“This isn’t a problem that just started,” she said, “and I don’t believe it’s going to be an easy fix, either.”

Teachers also plan to ask lawmakers to “hold schools harmless” from low ILEARN scores, which means the scores won’t negatively impact school A-F accountability grades and teacher evaluations. Just 37.1% of Indiana students in grades 3-8 were proficient in both English/language arts and math on ILEARN in its first year.

Brian Kehrt, a math teacher at New Palestine High School, said teaching has greatly evolved since he started in the classroom 32 years ago. Teachers used to have more time to prepare for class instruction, but many unfunded mandates handed down by the state have increased their workload.

“There are many more roles and many more hats (for teachers),” Kehrt said. “I don’t think that the state gets or understands that you’re a better teacher when you have more time to prepare for a class. The extra workload that’s been thrown upon us is not helping our teaching. It’s not helping us help kids.”

Kehrt, who has taught long enough at Southern Hancock to earn the maximum salary on the corporation’s pay scale, said he worries about younger teachers, like his daughter who’s also a public school teacher, losing interest in education due to the issues at the state level and not being able to earn the pay increases veteran teachers like him were able to get before the education reform a decade ago.

“I’m fighting for more than just me,” Kehrt said about attending the rally. “I just see the excellence some of our teachers possess and they’re never really rewarded for that, and I’ve always felt that was unfair.”

Wiley, Kerht and Wallace each said they feel supported by their school administrators; the problem, they say, is in Indianapolis.

“Students in Indiana deserve a lot better than what they’ve been getting,” Wallace said. “I know that the default setting for people is that this is about teacher pay, but I don’t know any public school teachers that don’t want what’s best for their kids. I don’t know any school corporations that don’t want what’s best for their kids.”