‘This is a warning shot’: Indiana’s Red for Ed rally isn’t a strike, but it’s closing schools anyway

Indiana teachers aren’t going on strike, but experts say they are putting lawmakers on notice.

Tuesday’s fast-growing rally is expected to cancel school for half of the state’s students while as many as 12,000 teachers descend on the Statehouse to make a list of demands, including more funding and higher pay.

“This is a warning shot,” said Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, a Carr professor of labor and employment law at Indiana University. “This is a sign of how serious the problem is and how unified the teachers are.”

Indiana ranked last in teacher salary raises over a 15-year period, according to a Forbes study, and discontent has grown among public educators over the past decade of education reforms — making it a place to watch as teachers strikes happened in other states.

Tuesday’s rally is the first large-scale movement the state has seen during the recent national wave of teacher protests, sometimes referred to as Red for Ed, due to the red t-shirts many educators wear when they protest.

Tuesday is the ceremonial opening day for the legislative session and with a critical mass of teachers asking for the day off to attend the rally, more than 130 districts have cancelled classes for the day.

But it remains unclear whether the rally will be big enough to capture national attention — even with the American Federation of Teachers’ national president Randi Weingarten making an appearance. And it’s far from certain if it will result in lawmakers increasing funding or mandating better working conditions.

Lawmakers, however, shouldn’t assume that a strike is off the table, Dau-Schmidt said.

“I think the legislature would be smart to be responsive to this,” he said. “If they want to keep heading on the track that they are heading on, we very well could have an illegal teachers strike, and they will be in the same position as other states.”

The upcoming rally is likely just the first step, however, in a longer strategy for Indiana’s unions, experts said. Even if lawmakers don’t reopen the budget this year because it’s set through 2020, the rally could make teacher pay a major discussion in upcoming elections.

“While there is much excitement for Tuesday’s rally, don’t let it end there,” Fort Wayne Community Schools Superintendent Wendy Robinson wrote in a letter to parents on Friday. “Take a look at how your state representatives have voted when it comes to funding public education and supporting teachers, and make your decisions wisely.”

In her letter Robinson announced that the district, one of the largest in the state, would close Tuesday despite initially trying to keep enough teachers at work to stay open.

“This event and the number of teachers requesting to take the day off have grown to the point where I no longer feel we can safely educate our students on Tuesday, Nov. 19,” she said.

Many school districts said the decision to close or move to an e-learning day came after the number of teachers who requested a personal day reached a critical mass. Of the districts that cancelled school, most will need to make the day up later in the year, while 18 opted to have students complete school work from home using an e-learning day, according to the Indiana State Teacher Association’s count.

By asking for a personal day teachers are using a protest approach experts said was similar to a “sick out,” when a group of workers organize to call in sick. It’s different than a strike, which would mean teachers refused to work and therefore give up pay and eventually lose their benefits.

Teachers mobilize on a smaller scale every year to advocate at the state legislature, but the size of this movement appears to be unprecedented in Indiana. They showed up in force earlier this year on a Saturday, and by the hundreds in 2011 when the legislature was considering restrictions on collective bargaining, but their activism has yet to have such a broad effect on students being out of school.

Over the past few decades, a handful of Indiana districts have seen strikes or threats of strikes when new contracts can’t be reached, according to news reports. Gary teachers, for example, went on strike at the start of the 2006-07 school year.

Indiana’s rally comes on the heels of successful demands in other states. Last month, Chicago’s 11-day strike ended with $1.5 billion worth of concessions from the city across a five-year contract, including raises for educators and support staff, and $35 million annually to help reduce overcrowding in some schools.  West Virginia teachers won a 5% raise after a nine-day strike in 2018. Oklahoma’s teacher strike ended with a $6,000 salary raise for teachers.

The building national momentum behind teacher’s labor movement likely motivated and could benefit Indiana, said Steven Ashby, a University of Illinois professor of labor and employment.

“Every time there’s a victory, it empowers teachers across the country,” he said.

And so far the rally has avoided criticism from top elected officials, including Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb. Often teachers who strike are criticized for skipping work and causing students to miss class time, said Charles Taylor, a political science professor at Ball State University.

But a lack of criticism won’t necessarily translate into increased education funding from the Republican supermajority during a short legislative session, when the state’s budget is already set through 2020.

Top lawmakers have been quick to shift the responsibility of raising teacher pay on school districts. While the General Assembly decides how much state funding districts receive, pay is ultimately negotiated and set by local school boards, which decide how much of the district’s budget goes to salaries.

“Local school districts are the decision-makers to determine what is best for their school corporation and for their students,” Holcomb’s office said in a statement. “The Governor has made finding long-term sustainable solutions to improve teacher compensation a top priority.”

Holcomb created a commission tasked with looking for new ways to increase teacher pay, but the group’s report isn’t expected to be finished for another year.

Lawmakers sent more money overall to schools last year and relieved pension expenses for districts, which has resulted in some districts announcing teacher raises. Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma pointed to these raises in a statement on Friday when asked about Tuesday’s rally.

“We support our teachers, the most important professionals for our state’s future, and appreciate their service to our state and to the next generation of Hoosiers,” he said. “We look forward to working with them to help drive more of the historic increases in education funding provided by the General Assembly to the classroom – where it belongs.”

But there was no requirement that districts put any savings from pensions toward teacher pay. And Keith Gambill, the president of the Indiana State Teachers Association union, said the additional funding increase is only expected to keep education spending about on track with inflation.

The state teachers union is calling specifically for lawmakers to take three actions: allocate part of the state’s more than $2 billion surplus to schools, pass a hold-harmless provision to protect schools from any negative consequences related to low 2019 ILEARN scores, and repeal new license requirements requiring teachers do 15 hours of professional development related to their community’s workforce needs.

Gambill said the union wants the state to give schools $75 million of the estimated $400 million the state will bring in this year above its expected revenue.

Indiana is so far behind neighboring states in teacher compensation that it would cost an estimated $658 million to make salaries more competitive, according to a January report. In 2016-17, Indiana teachers made an average salary of $50,554, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, but starting salaries can be as low as $30,000.

“[Teachers] believe that they’ve done everything they should to make a difference and that we need to take a different course of action,” Gambill said.