‘This can’t start and end today’: Thousands of teachers flood the Statehouse in Red For Ed rally

Music teacher Jill Weaver woke up at 4 a.m. and drove two hours to the Indiana Statehouse Tuesday, bundled against the cold in a red jacket, scarf, and gloves. That’s how eager she was to convey her message to lawmakers.

“What I see happening with education … is terrifying. It’s terrifying for my grandkids,” said Weaver, a Rochester Community Schools music teacher who held a sign reading, “Here’s a note: Rural Schools Matter too!”

Weaver’s urgent tone was echoed by educators across Tuesday’s Red for Ed rally, a one-day demonstration of force by Indiana teachers described as unprecedented by its organizers. Several thousand educators rallied on the ceremonial opening day for the legislative session to demand more funding, higher pay, less standardized testing, and smaller class sizes.

More than 5,000 people entered the statehouse for the event, according to Indiana State Police, although that doesn’t account for some of the crowds who gathered and marched outside. Indiana State Teachers Association estimated around 20,000 teachers attended, with 146 school districts canceling classes for the day.

The rally — which filled the lawn on the south side of the building in a sea of red before splitting up to meet with lawmakers or march — marks the state’s first large scale demonstration amid a wave of teacher activism nationwide.

Teachers rally because other methods of telling their story have been “ignored, dismissed or discouraged,” Randi Weingarten, national president of the American Federation of Teachers, told Chalkbeat after addressing a crowd of teachers. She said she’s seen the same thing in states where teachers have gone on strike for more funding and higher pay, including West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona.

“This is what happens when you don’t know what else to do,” she said. “You get really angry.”

Weingarten was one of two national union leaders to attend the rally. Becky Pringle, vice president of the National Education Association, also addressed teachers, alluding to taking bigger action in the future.

“What are you prepared to do?” Pringle said, then answered the question for Hoosier educators: “Whatever it takes.”

Weingarten echoed local unions’ calls for lawmakers to use some of the state’s $2 billion surplus to help fill gaps in education, such as a teacher shortage. Afterward, she told reporters that teachers in Indiana seem particularly betrayed by lawmakers.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten addresses a crowd of Red For Ed rally participants at the Indiana Statehouse on Nov. 19, 2019. (Emma Kate Fittes)

Some teachers criticized Gov. Eric Holcomb for missing the rally and attending what his office said was a  previously scheduled Republican Governors Association meeting in Florida. Holcomb released a statement Tuesday saying the rally was a “great opportunity” for educators to express their voice.

“I remain committed to finding long-term sustainable solutions to increase teacher compensation,” he said. “That’s why I created the Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission and signed our recent two-year budget that included historic levels of increased funding for K-12.”

The state’s largest union, the Indiana State Teachers Association, is calling 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 to do 15 hours of professional development related to their community’s workforce needs.

“The purse strings start at the state,” ISTA President Keith Gambill said Tuesday morning. “We hope to hear from lawmakers that they are ready to take bold action. If they don’t, elections are coming in 2020.”

Read more: We asked Indiana teachers why they are rallying. Here’s what they said. 

Some Republican lawmakers said they were open to some of the teachers’ causes, though it remains unclear exactly how their concerns could be addressed — especially if the state doesn’t reopen its budget, which is set through 2020.

The General Assembly sent more money overall to schools last year and relieved pension expenses for districts with the goal of freeing up money for teacher salaries — accomplishments Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma pointed to while making his scheduled statement for Opening Day.

During his address, Bosma — sporting a red tie in support of the teachers — acknowledged that legislative action over the past decade has not “moved the needle” on teacher pay, but continued to place responsibility on local districts by pointing out that they negotiate and set salaries.

That sentiment was met with a “Red For Ed” chant from a crowd of rally participants watching the chamber proceedings from the hallway. When Bosma brought up that the state replaced the widely-criticized ISTEP exam with ILEARN, the crowd boo-ed.

“That’s too bad,” Bosma said as the booing continued, pausing and appearing to skip forward in his planned comments.

Thousands of teachers attend a Red For Read rally at the Indiana Statehouse on Nov. 19, 2019. (Emma Kate Fittes/Chalkbeat)

Republican leaders largely laid low during the rally, with the notable exception of State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick.

“Indiana kids deserve to have adequate and equitable funding,” she said during a press conference. “It’s easy to shift the blame. It’s easy to blame local superintendents … It starts upstairs in the Statehouse.”

McCormick made an unscheduled appearance at AFT’s gathering, surrounded on stage by Democrat lawmakers. She and Democrat gubernatorial candidate Eddie Melton walked out together to greet the crowd Tuesday morning.

“This is Day One of many days,” McCormick said when addressing teachers. “This can’t start and end today.”

While there was high energy at the rally and multiple calls for teachers to continue its momentum, speakers stopped short of suggesting a strike.

Striking is always a “last resort,” Weingarten said to Chalkbeat, because it invites criticism. And she hinted that teachers may not reach that point in Indiana after Tuesday’s showing.

“Frankly what we are seeing across the country is that when teachers speak, communities listen,” she said.