Thousands of teachers to descend on statehouse

AP/fileRally: In this April 16 photo, teachers cheer during a rally at the Statehouse in Indianapolis. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb isn’t promising any quick action on the call for further boosting teacher pay that thousands of educators will be making at the Statehouse next week. Teacher unions say at least 107 school districts with more than 40 percent of Indiana’s students will be closed Tuesday while their teachers attend the rally. Holcomb didn’t criticize school districts for closing, saying it was a local decision.

Thousands of educators, including hundreds from Vigo County and other Wabash Valley school districts, are expected to descend on Indianapolis Tuesday to participate in the “Red for Ed” rally organized by the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Their goals include improved teacher pay, better funding for public education, changes related to student testing and other reforms.

“Teachers are asking for fair wages, fair [student] assessments and to be recognized as a profession,” said Jodie Buckallew, a Vigo County teacher who has helped launch a district-wide Red for Ed movement. “All three of those have been taken away from us by our elected officials in Indianapolis.”

Legislators “spend millions on assessments that are not appropriate and don’t show or tell us anything about our students,” said Buckallew, who also is a member of the Vigo County Teachers Association. She views Tuesday’s rally as “a launching point.”

Teachers will attend legislative crackerbarrels when the 2020 session starts, and they will monitor how legislators vote and hold them accountable, she said. She is secretary of the VCTA executive board.

The Red for Ed Action Day is being conducted in conjunction with the Legislature’s Organization Day, where legislators gather ahead of the 2020 General Assembly to talk about priorities.

More than 100 Indiana school districts have canceled school Tuesday because of the large number of teachers planning to attend the rally. Among those is the Vigo County School Corp., which decided to cancel school and use a snow day to be made up Feb. 14, after about half of VCSC teachers indicated they would take a personal day that day.

VCSC teachers will not get paid Tuesday because there is no school; they will get paid when they work on the snow makeup day Feb. 14.

The district canceled because of concerns about student safety as well as the quality of the school day; it doesn’t have enough substitutes to cover for all the absences. In addition, the district also wanted to show support for teachers, said Bill Riley, VCSC director of communications.

“We’re supportive of our teachers making their voices heard,” he said Friday. Also, the issues involve more than teacher pay. “They have a broader agenda ... and we’re supportive of that agenda.”

The district regrets that the rally is occurring on a school day, but that is when legislators will be in Indianapolis to set their agenda for the 2020 session, he said. “We’re happy to use one of our built-in makeup days to allow teachers to have their voices heard and let our students have a good education day Feb. 14.”

Kim Fidler, Uniserv director with the Indiana State Teachers Association, said that statewide, more than 14,000 people have registered to attend the rally.

She estimated that as many as 800 Vigo County teachers could be present in Indianapolis, but not all have registered. “We don’t have firm numbers,” she said.

About 30 teachers from Southwest Sullivan School Corp. had planned to take personal days to attend, she said.

ISTA plans to advocate for several issues that include investing the budget surplus in teacher compensation and holding teachers and schools harmless from I-LEARN consequences, according to the ISTA website.

The issues go beyond teacher compensation, Fidler said. “We’re not having the resources we need to serve our students.”

Other issues include statewide testing that is used to grade schools and evaluate teachers, which impacts teacher pay.

While educators hope to have a collective impact Tuesday, “I think we are still trying to avoid any walkout” or work stoppage that would affect students, Fidler said. “Even though we’re taking a day to go on Organization Day to express our opinions and show our strength through numbers, we’d like to avoid any further need to take a job action.”

But educators want legislators to understand “we are very serious about this,” Fidler said. The state has a teacher shortage and public education continues to feel the negative impacts of legislation passed in recent years.

State Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute has a dual role Tuesday — she is a Vigo County School Corp. teacher and a state legislator who will participate in organization day.

“The good thing about the rally is that teachers are joining together for a common cause,” she said. “We’re tired of testing. We’re tired of the teacher shortage ... For the first time in a long time, teachers are coming together to stand as one so their voices will be heard.”

Teaching is not an easy profession, and it’s hard to recruit new teachers, Pfaff said. Also, with changes in state legislation in recent years, it’s difficult for new teachers to get ahead financially; one teacher at her school makes $35,000 per year and has a $400 per month student loan payment.

“We can’t attract people or retain them in our profession,” she said. “That’s why we’re in this crisis.”

Another concern is voucher, virtual and charter schools not having the same accountability standards as public schools, she said. “If they take state money, they should be held to the same standards.”

Will Tuesday’s rally, where educators where red so as to be easily noticed by lawmakers, make a difference?

“I think at the very least, people are starting to talk and pay attention,” Pfaff said. “Are the students we’re educating better off than they were 10 to 15 years ago? We’ve had an incredible amount of testing.”

She believes people are looking around and realizing kids are not better off. “Students are full of anxiety, they don’t like school, they are learning how to do multiple choice tests ... but life is not multiple choice. It’s about working on projects, collaborating and problem-solving.”

Pfaff hopes Tuesday’s rally “is the start of a conversation and we keep having conversations — because something has to change.”

Two other Wabash Valley school districts also announced plans to be closed Tuesday, North Central Parke Community Schools, which will have a make up day March 18, and South Vermillion Schools, which will have a makeup day Feb. 17.

South Vermillion superintendent Dave Chapman reports that “well over half” of teachers there have indicated they plan to attend the rally. Mike Schimpf, North Central Parke superintendent, reported that 35 teachers initially shared with him their intentions of going on Tuesday. “We may have more than that actually attend,” he said.

Not everyone supports cancellation of school so that teachers can attend a political rally and lobby legislators. Social media posts show that some believe teachers should be in school teaching on a school day.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at Follow Sue on Twitter @TribStarSue.

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