By TOM DAVIES
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Several thousand teachers wearing red surrounded the Indiana Statehouse Tuesday to call for better pay and more respect from the Republican-dominated state government in a protest that closed over half of the state’s school districts for the day.
The union-organized rally represented Indiana’s biggest such teacher protest amid a wave of educator activism across the country over the past two years.
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Teachers chanted, “Fund our schools” and “Put kids first,” as hundreds of them lined entrances to the Statehouse, many holding handmade signs with sayings such as, “Less Money on Testing, More Money on Students.” Teachers with marching band instruments played “We’re Not Gonna Take It” from the Statehouse steps.
High school math teacher Angela Cooper said she and more than 40 fellow teachers from the Gibson Southern schools near Evansville left around 4:30 a.m. for the rally. She said a top worry is low pay, causing many new teachers to leave for other jobs.
“We need to make sure we keep teachers in the classroom,” Cooper said. “They start in the classroom, but then they leave because they aren’t paid enough.”
Indiana State Teachers Association President Keith Gambill told a few thousand teachers who covered the Statehouse lawn that the Legislature should direct money from the state’s $2 billion in cash reserves toward helping schools.
“The crisis is now, and we need action now,” Gambill said to cheers from the crowd. “The issue is funding, and the state has the money.”
Nearly 300 school districts closed because of the rally, according to teachers unions. It came as legislators gather for organizational meetings ahead of their 2020 session that starts in early January. The unions said more than 15,000 people registered for the rally. Indiana State Police reported at least 5,000 people entered the Statehouse through public entrances, but the agency didn’t estimate how many total were on the grounds.
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and leaders of the GOP-dominated Legislature have avoided direct criticism of teachers or school districts for the closings. They seem intent on not antagonizing educators as Kentucky GOP Gov. Matt Bevin, who lost his reelection bid this month, did in lashing out at teachers who used sick days to rally. However, they said they don’t expect to take action on further boosting school funding until at least 2021.
Other teacher protests were held last year in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona.
While some Indiana protesters chanted, “Red for Ed,” in a Statehouse hallway, Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma spoke before lawmakers defending the state budget approved by Republicans in April that boosted base school spending by 2.5% each of the next two years. Holcomb and GOP legislative leaders touted the plan as making strides toward improving teacher pay.
Bosma said lawmakers would take action to prevent the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers and schools after lower scores on the state’s new ILEARN standardized exam taken last spring — one of the top concerns of the teachers unions.
“We get that you’re frustrated,” Bosma said. “We get that you are concerned about issues.”
Teachers didn’t see Holcomb at the Statehouse on Tuesday. His office said he was keeping long-standing plans for traveling to Florida for a conference of the Republican Governors Association, which gave nearly $5.9 million toward Holcomb’s 2016 election campaign.
The governor said he was waiting for a teacher pay commission he appointed in February to make recommendations on increasing salaries by the end of 2020.
Education advocacy groups estimated this year that a 9% funding increase was needed to boost average teacher pay to the midpoint of neighboring states. Republican state schools Superintendent Jennifer McCormick has cited a study showing Indiana as the state with the lowest teacher salary increases since 2002.
McCormick, who has split from many fellow Republicans on issues such as the state’s private school voucher program, told cheering teachers that they weren’t “asking for the moon.”
“What a shame that it takes today to get what our kids deserve,” she said.
Joel Schlabach, a teacher at eastern Indiana’s Richmond High School, said politicians have “vilified” educators.
“They think they know better about education than us,” he said. “They don’t trust us to make important decisions about students whose names we know when we’re in the classroom.”