Big teacher protest didn't prompt funding action

By The Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — Several thousand teachers at a boisterous Statehouse rally put complaints about their treatment squarely in front of Indiana lawmakers as this year’s legislative session was about to start.

The Republicans who dominate state government say they’re giving educators more respect, pointing to a proposal that would end the mandatory use of student test results in teacher evaluations. The loud chants from teachers for improved school funding, however, didn’t result in any additional money as Republican lawmakers pushed through this year’s only planned spending bill even before the 10-week legislative session reached its midpoint this past week.

The school funding rebuff came as few teachers returned to the Statehouse since the November rally and several legislators said that few teachers had contacted them to talk about their concerns.

Neither the teachers unions that organized the rally nor any teachers testified during the budget committee hearings on the Republican-backed plan for spending $291 million in unexpected state tax revenue, which Democrats unsuccessfully tried to shift toward boosting the state’s stagnant teacher pay.

Republican Rep. Holli Sullivan of Evansville, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said she talked with one teacher from her district on the day of the rally and didn’t hear from more until two contacted her in late January for a meeting.

“I was kind of disappointed because I want to partner with them any way possible,” Sullivan said.

Gov. Eric Holcomb and other Republicans have maintained that their plan for using the extra state money toward paying cash for several college campus building projects will have more than $135 million in borrowing costs and free up more money in the future for school funding. They say that will also allow the state to be “nimble” if there is a recession by protecting its top-level credit rating and some $2 billion in cash reserves.

Some Republicans maintain that teachers are more concerned about new license requirements adopted last year requiring teachers to log 15 hours of professional development regarding the needs of local employers and about having their performance evaluations tied to student test scores — especially after a big drop in scores with the state's new ILEARN standardized exam given for the first time last spring.

“Most of them said that those were more important than the teacher pay raise piece,” said Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, a Republican from Martinsville.

The leader of the state’s largest teachers union said he was pleased with the possible changes with teacher evaluations but remained frustrated with the lack of action toward boosting pay. Average Indiana teacher salaries have dropped 15% since 2000 when adjusted for inflation and about a third of new Indiana teachers leave their jobs within five years, according to state officials and education advocacy groups.

Holcomb has said nearly all Indiana public school teachers are seeing raises this school year under the 2.5% per-year increase in school funding included in the two-year state budget adopted last April.

Indiana State Teachers Association President Keith Gambill said that just isn’t enough to keep Indiana from falling further behind other states.

“Settling one good contract isn’t going to make up for the loss that you’ve encountered over 8 or 10 years,” said Gambill, a middle school teacher from Evansville.

Gambill asserted that teachers had demonstrated to legislators how concerned they were with the rally that closed about half of Indiana’s nearly 300 school districts as so many educators were taking the day off.

“I certainly hope they aren’t suggesting 20,000 folks need to be at the state capital every day that they’re in session for them to do what they should,” he said.

Sen. Vanetta Becker, a Republican from Evansville, had proposed directing $75 million toward the 144 school districts that because of declining enrollments saw a state funding cut or an increase less than the inflation rate. But that bill wasn’t taken up by GOP budget leaders and has died.

Becker said teachers “sent a message” about what needs to be done and doubted more teacher lobbying at the Statehouse would’ve made a difference. Becker, who’s been in the Legislature since 1981, said Holcomb and her fellow Republicans don’t feel much pressure to act since Democrats don’t have a well-known challenger as the governor seeks reelection this year.

“I think if there were stronger gubernatorial candidates out there, you might see something different,” she said.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, an Anderson Democrat, said Republicans don’t deserve much credit for ending the state requirement dating from a 2011 GOP-driven education overhaul that school districts incorporate student exam results in their teacher evaluations, which are used in determining merit pay raises.

“Those are mistakes that have been made by the General Assembly and those are simply correcting what we should never have done,” Lanane said.

Republicans unanimously rejected a variety of Democratic proposals to increase school funding in favor of waiting for recommendations expected later this year from a teacher pay commission Holcomb appointed in early 2019. Democrats maintain that is shortsighted.

“Again, lagging, lagging, lagging behind all the other states,” Lanane said. “Lagging behind in average growth in teacher pay, lagging behind all the other surrounding states.”

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