Teacher rally not prompting immediate GOP action

The Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — Thousands of teachers are preparing to descend on the Indiana Statehouse to push for further increasing teacher pay, but top Republicans are throwing cold water on the prospect of more state money for schools in the coming year.

About half of Indiana’s nearly 300 school districts will be closed while their teachers attend Tuesday’s rally on the day legislators gather for organizational meetings ahead of the 2020 session that starts in early January, according to state teachers unions.

Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and leaders of the GOP-dominated Legislature have avoided direct criticism of teachers or the decisions by school districts to close for the union-organized rally that will have more than 600,000 students out of class.

“They are there because they want respect,” Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said Monday. “They, honestly, have respect. They may not feel that way. But we’re going to show them every respect (Tuesday) that we can. I’m going to thank them personally for being there.”

Leaders of the Indiana State Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers Indiana say their members are frustrated over having seen little or no pay raise in the past decade while facing additional demands from the state on student testing and professional development requirements.

Republicans, however, contend school districts have the money for teacher pay raises with the new two-year state budget approved in April that boosts base school spending by 2.5% both years.

Bosma said how that money is spent is up to local school officials and that no additional school spending will likely be taken up during the 2020 session. He also argued the teacher unions haven’t acknowledged the Legislature’s attempts to help educators.

“All we can do is give the message, give the facts and we’ll have to let people make up their own mind,” Bosma said. “Currently, teachers only hear what their association lets them know.”

Some school districts reached new contracts this fall, giving thousands of dollars in raises to teachers. But education advocacy groups estimated this year that a 9% funding increase was needed to boost average teacher pay of about $50,000 a year to the midpoint of Indiana’s neighboring states, while GOP state schools Superintendent Jennifer McCormick cited a study showing Indiana as the state with the lowest teacher salary increases since 2002.

Indiana State Teachers Association President Keith Gambill said a long-term commitment is needed from state officials.

“The economic loss that teachers have suffered over the past decade cannot and will not be solved with one good contract,” Gambill said. “The state needs to step up in a big, bold way to say that they are going to take on the issue of compensation for our educators and they’re going to get it corrected.”

Holcomb won’t see Tuesday’s rally in person as his office said he would be traveling to Florida for a Republican Governors Association conference that was scheduled months ago. Last week, Holcomb declined to knock school districts or teachers for Tuesday’s closings and said he was waiting for a teacher pay commission he appointed in February to make recommendations on increasing salaries by the end of 2020.

Democratic Rep. Terri Austin of Anderson said multiple Republican-driven education overhauls over the past decade have compounded teacher frustrations.

“If we had taken some of the concerns seriously over the last 5 to 10 years, we wouldn’t have gotten to this point,” Austin said. “But I think professional educators feel absolutely ignored and, in fact, they are viewed in a very condescending manner.”

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