Dozens of Indiana districts cancel classes for teachers to rally for higher pay

So many teachers asked to take Nov. 19 off to rally at the Statehouse for higher pay that nearly 30 districts across Indiana have canceled school or scheduled e-learning days.

“We’re going to support our teachers,” said Beech Grove Superintendent Paul Kaiser, who plans to join teachers at the rally that day while students work online from home. “I think it’s important for our leaders and decision-makers to understand that this is a crisis in the state of Indiana.”

The Indiana State Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers Indiana both plan to show up in force at the Statehouse on the ceremonial opening day of the legislative session. The unions want to urge lawmakers to find ways to increase teacher pay soon, although it remains to be seen whether legislators will be willing to act when the state’s budget is already set for two years.

Indianapolis Public Schools announced Wednesday that it will cancel classes on Nov. 19 to allow teachers to participate. South Bend, the state’s fifth-largest school district, and Wayne Township in Indianapolis are also among the districts that have canceled school entirely.

“We want to provide our teachers and staff with the opportunity to exercise their rights and take this day to advocate for public education and for their students,” South Bend Superintendent Todd Cummings said in a tweet. The district still plans to provide meals for students who rely on school food services, the South Bend Tribune reported.

Having teachers leave the classroom to demonstrate their discontent to lawmakers is a dramatic political play. ISTA, the state’s largest union, estimates the districts that have announced closures or e-learning days serve about 15% of Indiana’s public school students. It expects more districts to join in.

That could make for both a sizable demonstration and a significant effect on students.

Many educators say they feel unsatisfied with the small steps state lawmakers took earlier this year to start addressing the issue of low teacher pay and don’t want the legislature to wait until the next budget discussions in 2021 to take meaningful action.

“We cannot do what is right for students by sitting back any longer,” ISTA President Keith Gambill said. “We have written our letters. We’ve sent our emails. We’ve placed our phone calls. Last year we had a rally on a Saturday. And the issue still exists and has not been addressed at the level that it needs to be and at the level that our children deserve.”

More than 4,000 people have already registered to attend ISTA’s advocacy day, Gambill said.

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.

Not all districts are willing to close their doors for a day, which will displace students and force families to make alternative arrangements so teachers can advocate.

“We’re supportive of raising awareness to legislative issues, but we’re not supportive of disrupting instruction,” New Albany-Floyd County schools Superintendent Brad Snyder told the News and Tribune last week. “As of today, we’re business as usual. If the situation on the ground changes, and the numbers increase, we’ll have to do what we can. Even with that, we’ll just have to figure out a way to get coverage.”

The numbers of teachers requesting time off also created a logistical snarl for some districts. In Elkhart, Concord Community Schools faced having more than 70 classrooms unstaffed because so many teachers wanted to attend the rally, WSBT reported.

“That’s just too much for us to try to manage,” Superintendent Tim Tahara told WSBT.

Districts that cancel school will make up the day the same way as snow days. Some are opting instead for e-learning days, when students complete classwork online, typically using computers or tablets issued by their school. E-learning days don’t need to be made up, and some districts will still expect teachers to engage with students, just like when they use e-learning days in place of snow days.

ISTA is specifically 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 do 15 hours of professional development related to their community’s workforce needs.

Lawmakers appear poised to pass hold-harmless legislation after top lawmakers publicly offered their support for the measure. The state saw test scores drop statewide in the first year of a new, more rigorous test. If approved, the one-year reprieve will allow districts to use old scores to calculate their state grades, which can factor into teacher evaluations and state takeover timelines.

But the call to use the state’s surplus for education hasn’t seen support from top lawmakers. When asked by Chalkbeat in September, Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, said in an email the state’s reserves aren’t meant to be a source of ongoing revenue.

“We need to look at long-term, sustainable solutions to increase teacher pay,” he said.

This is the latest in an ongoing fight for higher teacher pay. More than 1,000 educators rallied at the Statehouse in March to demand higher pay and more school funding. Lawmakers ultimately approved a 2.5% increase in overall school funding and freed up $70 million in schools’ pension liabilities for each of the next two years.

A committee formed by Gov. Eric Holcomb is tasked with recommending new ways to increase teacher pay, although it isn’t expected to finish its report until 2021.

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.