Teachers make their voices heard at Red for Ed

Michael Conroy/AP Photo
Thousands of Indiana teachers wearing red hold rally at the Statehouse in Indianapolis on Tuesday, calling for further increasing teacher pay in the biggest such protest in the state amid a wave of educator activism across the country. Teacher unions says about half of Indiana's nearly 300 school districts are closed while their teachers attend Tuesday's rally while legislators gather for 2020 session organization meetings.

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

INDIANAPOLIS — They used their teacher voices and gave legislators a lesson on the issues facing public education.

More than 15 Dubois County educators made their voices heard at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis on Tuesday when they took a day away from their students to advocate for public school reform at the first Red for Ed rally in Indiana. They joined about 15,000 educators, education students and parents from across the state in the largest rally at the Statehouse in recent years — according to the Indianapolis Star, the Women’s March in 2016 drew about half that crowd — as they fought for more funding for public education and standardized test reform.

The rally, which was organized by the Indiana State Teachers Association and other labor groups, resulted in the closure of 146 school districts. No Dubois County schools were among those that closed, however, Crawford County, Evansville Vanderburgh and Pike County schools were among those that did. Some schools that closed converted the day to an e-learning day so that students will not have to make it up.

Tuesday’s rally was the latest Red for Ed assemblage in a series of rallies across the country that began last year with West Virginia teachers rallying in February and March before the movement spread across several states.

Tuesday marked Indiana’s first Red for Ed rally, and for the local teachers in attendance, the day was about fighting for their students and for public education.

Gina Schuetter, who teaches English and Spanish at Jasper High School, said many of her lessons include telling her students that their voices matter. Living that lesson is part of what brought her to the rally.

“I can’t tell them that their voices matter if I don’t use my voice,” she said.

The two issues she focused on most were standardized testing and ballooning class sizes.

“With 30-plus students, it’s hard to give everyone the attention they deserve,” Schuetter said.

Photo provided
Left to right, Jasper High School teachers Tina Luebbehusen, Abby Kennedy, Amy Bastien, Gina Schuetter and Brooke Keusch.

Jasper High School English and theater teacher Tina Luebbehusen agreed.

“Our class sizes are getting larger and larger each year,” Luebbehusen said. “We don’t feel like we are able to do what’s best for the kids.”

Although she wasn’t able to attend the rally, Greater Jasper Classroom Teachers Association President Nikki Roberts explained that the educators’ call for increased school funding isn’t just about better pay for educators. In fact, she said, that’s just a small part of it. Increased funding also means schools can hire more social workers, nurses and support staff. That’s a big need Roberts sees at Greater Jasper. Roberts teaches at Ireland Elementary, and said the school does not have its own full-time social worker. Instead, Ireland shares two social workers with Tenth Street and Fifth Street elementaries.

Roberts also pointed out that more funding for the schools would also mean more time in art and music classes, as well as a designated physical education teacher.

“We used to have PE teachers in every elementary building,” said Roberts, who’s been teaching for 23 years. “We no longer have PE teachers.”

Jasper High School English teacher Abby Kennedy remembers having longer art, music and PE classes when she was a child attending a public school. Now, she’s a mom with two children who will attend public school, and she wants them to have that same experience.

“I’m fighting for my children and my children in the classroom,” Kennedy said.

For Forest Park music and theater teacher Chuck Bradley, the state’s school funding structure is a big issue he wanted to see addressed at the rally. Bradley has been teaching for 36 years, and remembers when the state changed its school funding structure in 2008 to be based on enrollment.

“That really hurt small schools like Southeast Dubois,” he said. “We can’t keep up with inflation. We can’t increase salaries to attract or retain teachers.”

Bradley also pointed out that the state uses tax dollars for private school vouchers and charter schools, which takes money away from public schools.

Michael Conroy/AP Photo
Thousands of Indiana teachers wearing red surround the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019 for a rally calling for further increasing teacher pay in the biggest such protest in the state amid a wave of educator activism across the country. Teacher unions says about half of Indiana's nearly 300 school districts are closed while their teachers attend Tuesday's rally while legislators gather for 2020 session organization meetings.

Also on Bradley’s mind was a new training requirement that teachers complete a 15-hour unpaid externship with a local industry as part of their license renewal requirements. He is not alone in disagreeing with the requirement, and the change was one of several issues educators discussed at the rally.

The state’s standardized testing system was also a major issue educators hoped to bring to lawmakers’ attention Tuesday, and it was a major issue on Bradley’s mind as well. Although teachers understand the need for some kind of professional oversight, there’s too much change in the testing processes, Bradley said.

Jasper Middle School social studies teacher Anna Grant also attended the rally with standardized testing on her mind. In her opinion, the test doesn’t work. It generally takes 14 days to administer, with weeks of classroom prep times leading up to the test, all of which equals several weeks of instruction lost and a lot of stress on the students.

“It just burns the kids out,” she said. “That’s not what learning should be about.”

State Sen. Mark Messmer, who represents Dubois County, said legislators hear educators, especially when it comes to the standardized test. One of the Legislature’s first actions when it convenes in January will be to pass hold-harmless measures to ensure the 2018-19 ILEARN scores — the first scores with the new ILEARN test — don’t affect school accountability grades or teacher evaluations.

“You really need to be able to compare the first and second year of ILEARN,” he said.

As for the educators’ other requests, Messmer said there likely won’t be any major changes this year as its not a budget year. Although there were calls during the rally for legislators to revisit the budget they passed last year and add school funding, Messmer said that’s not likely to happen.

Messmer was in Indianapolis during the rally for Organization Day for the 2020 legislative season. He said he had teachers from his district stop by his office to talk about issues, and that those were positive conversations. Overall, he said, the rally seemed to be conducted in a respectful, productive manner, and he was grateful for the conversations he was able to have.

“If it’s done in a positive, respectful manner, it leaves a positive impression, and I think everyone today really behaved in a positive, respectful manner,” he said.

Michael Conroy/AP Photo
Thousands of Indiana teachers wearing red surround the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019 for a rally calling for further increasing teacher pay in the biggest such protest in the state amid a wave of educator activism across the country. Teacher unions says about half of Indiana's nearly 300 school districts are closed while their teachers attend Tuesday's rally while legislators gather for 2020 session organization meetings.

The teachers said that for the most part, the day was a positive experience, and although they wished more officials would have taken an interest in the rally — Gov. Eric Holcomb, for example, was in Florida at a conference — they thought they made their voices heard.

“There was a lot of unity between educators, parents, students and some legislators,” said Northeast Dubois High School English teacher Courtney Hopf.

Hopf was among the roughly 5,000 educators who were permitted inside the capitol building after the larger rally outside. Inside, the educators split into smaller groups and spoke to various legislators. Some were welcoming and eager to engage in conversations. Others, she said, pushed back.

Overall, Hopf was glad she attended the rally, even though it meant a day away from her students. Prior to the rally, she said she was open with her students about why she would be absent, and explained that while she wanted to be in the classroom, she also needed to take a stand.

“I want to be there with them,” she said. “But I am also fighting for them and their future. I want them to have the best education they can have.”

All the teachers emphasized that although the rally aimed for legislative change, it wasn’t meant to be a political or partisan issue. In fact, they said, there were attendees at the rally from across the political spectrum.

“It’s not a Democrat or Republican fight,” Roberts said. “It’s a fight for our children.”

For Grant, the day turned her outlook from discouraged to hopeful.

“It was inspiring to see people from all over the state come together,” she said. “It was the first time I felt like we’re going to be OK.”

With the Red for Ed rally behind them, the teachers are back on their campuses today using their teacher voices to educate and inspire their students, the very people whose futures led the teachers to don red and travel to Indianapolis in the first place.




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