RED TIDE RISING: Teachers hope rally gets lawmakers’ attention

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INDIANAPOLIS — Dave Poncar stood on the south steps of the Indiana Statehouse Tuesday morning, looking out at the “massive humanity of red.”

The Greenfield Central Junior High School band director joined a few dozen other band educators from across the state at the top of the stairs, playing school pep band tunes and rallying the thousands of teachers who gathered around the Statehouse to urge lawmakers to stand up for public education.

Nearly 16,000 teachers and their supporters representing most of Indiana’s schools, from Elkhart and Fort Wayne to Bloomington and New Albany, signed up for the “Red for Ed Action Day,” put on by the Indiana State Teachers Association. The throng included more than 200 teachers from Hancock County’s four school districts who took a personal day for the rally, causing three corporations to cancel classes or have an e-learning day. Local educators have said the response is unprecedented.

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Many teachers who attended the rally, wearing red jackets, sweaters and stocking hats, brought signs to display. One said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Another read, “We teach. We care.”

After an opening program outside the south entrance, the thousands of teachers marched around the Statehouse grounds, swarming most of the streets and sidewalks. Some drivers in the area honked in support of the teachers, sometimes synchronizing their horns to the chants and music in the background.

Laura Harmon, an English teacher at Greenfield-Central High School, bought craft supplies at 5 a.m. and made her sign a few hours later inside a parking garage across from the Statehouse.

Since Greenfield-Central — as well as Mt. Vernon schools — had an e-learning day on Tuesday, teachers had to prepare lessons for students for the day. Southern Hancock Schools canceled classes, and Eastern Hancock still held school. Teachers from Eastern Hancock decided to hold a “walk-in” to school in the morning to show support for the teachers who attended the rally.

Monica Holden, an art teacher at Greenfield Central Junior High, said she was sending emails back and forth with her students about their e-learning assignments throughout Tuesday morning. Holden said she and her husband, Josh Holden, a health teacher at the high school, not only attended the action day to ask for more school funding, but to speak up for their own children who attend Greenfield-Central schools as well as their students in class.

Josh Holden, who has been teaching for 16 years, also tutors math at the high school. He said some students spend most of their first semester reviewing for standardized tests rather than focusing on new content.

“We’re not pushing our kids further,” Holden said. “We’re holding them back because we have to review for ILEARN. I know people think we’re crying for more money, but that’s not the only thing we’re shooting for. We want to be able to teach. Every one of these people got in because they love kids, and they’re driving us out of the profession because we’re not able to do things the way they should be done.”

The three main priorities for the Indiana State Teachers Association at the rally were teacher compensation; an action by the legislature to hold teachers harmless from poor ILEARN test scores; and repealing strict teacher licensing requirements.

Keith Gambill, president of ISTA, called the gathering “one glorious day” in his remarks to the crowd. He said the teachers there were standing up for “self, student and school.”

“This is a historic day, and we’re just getting started,” Gambill said.

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. And according to the Rockefeller Institute, Salary growth for Hoosier teachers amounted to $6,904 over 15 years — ranking 51st in the country.

Gambill said 60 Indiana school corporations will see a cut in funding in 2020. A GOP spending plan the Indiana General Assembly passed in April increased school funding by 2.5% each of the next two years, but an analysis by Democrats shows that the budget increases favor charter and private schools more than public schools. Gambill said lawmakers should use budget surplus money to fund education.

Over the summer, Gov. Eric Holcomb instituted the Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission to research how to make teacher pay competitive with those in surrounding states.

State Sen. Mike Crider, R-Greenfield, told the Daily Reporter on Tuesday that he and other state lawmakers are waiting on the findings of the teacher compensation commission before deciding the best path forward for school funding and teacher pay.

Crider said the rally showed “the beauty of government,” allowing people to express their thoughts and feelings to lawmakers. He said he’s learned about challenges in public education from superintendents in his district, who he meets with once a month for breakfast.