Why 15,000 Indiana Teachers Just Walked Off the Job

Jeff Schuhrke November 19, 2019

Tuesday’s statewide walkout of teachers in Indiana could lead to an illegal strike. (Photo via Facebook / Central Indiana DSA)

After mak­ing waves in West Vir­ginia, Okla­homa, Ari­zona, Ken­tucky, North Car­oli­na and beyond, the Red for Ed move­ment has now spread to Indi­ana. Fed up with dis­in­vest­ment in pub­lic schools and dis­re­spect for their pro­fes­sion, teach­ers from across the Hoosier State are con­verg­ing in Indi­anapo­lis today to hold law­mak­ers account­able and demand change.

More than 15,000 teach­ers and sup­port­ers are expect­ed to ral­ly at the Repub­li­can-con­trolled state­house for today’s Red for Ed Day of Action, orga­nized by the Indi­ana State Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion and AFT Indi­ana. While the protest is not offi­cial­ly a strike, near­ly half of the state’s school dis­tricts have been forced to can­cel class­es because so many edu­ca­tors have tak­en the day off to participate.

The ral­ly coin­cides with the state legislature’s Orga­ni­za­tion Day,” where law­mak­ers dis­cuss their pri­or­i­ties for the next leg­isla­tive ses­sion which begins in January.

Teach­ers are demand­ing rais­es to their salaries, which aver­age around $50,000 — well below the nation­al aver­age of $60,000 — but can be as low as $30,000 for new hires. After years of state bud­get sur­plus­es, Indi­ana now has $2.3 bil­lion in reserves. At the same time, Indi­ana teach­ers have seen the small­est salary increas­es in the nation, receiv­ing an over­all increase of only $6,900 between 2002 and 2017.

Rather than sim­ply tap­ping into the state’s mas­sive reserves to pay for teacher rais­es, Repub­li­can law­mak­ers say that any salary increas­es would have to be paired with cuts to oth­er school expens­es such as admin­is­tra­tion and transportation.

Ear­li­er this year, Repub­li­can Gov. Eric Hol­comb agreed to a one-time allo­ca­tion of $150 mil­lion to pay down schools’ pen­sion lia­bil­i­ty, free­ing up $70 mil­lion per year in the school dis­tricts’ bud­gets. While Hol­comb framed the move as a round­about way to pro­vide teach­ers rais­es, schools were not required to use the sav­ings for salary increas­es — and appar­ent­ly haven’t done so.

The low salaries com­pared to neigh­bor­ing states has result­ed in a statewide teacher short­age. Class sizes have bal­looned because we don’t have the staff — we can’t fill the posi­tions that are open and we can’t find the mon­ey to hire staff,” explained Daniel Bru­gioni, pres­i­dent of the Lake Ridge Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers. When you’re look­ing at almost 100% of dis­tricts in the state can’t fill their open­ings, you real­ize some­thing has to be done.”

A sec­ond demand of the teach­ers revolves around Indiana’s new stan­dard­ized test, the Indi­ana Learn­ing Eval­u­a­tion Assess­ment Readi­ness Net­work (ILEARN). The exam is com­put­er adap­tive, mean­ing the dif­fi­cul­ty of ques­tions changes based on stu­dents’ respons­es. It was just rolled out this year, and few­er than half of the state’s stu­dents passed it. The result has not only angered par­ents, but also raised con­cerns for teach­ers — whose com­pen­sa­tion is tied to their stu­dents’ ILEARN scores. 

Teach­ers are call­ing on law­mak­ers to pass a hold-harm­less” pro­vi­sion to pre­vent this year’s ILEARN scores from being used by the state to pun­ish them, their stu­dents and their schools. At the same time, teach­ers are also ques­tion­ing the state’s empha­sis on stan­dard­ized testing.

Are the stu­dents we’re edu­cat­ing bet­ter off than they were 10 to 15 years ago? We’ve had an incred­i­ble amount of test­ing,” said Tonya Pfaff, a school­teacher in Vigo Coun­ty as well as a Demo­c­ra­t­ic state leg­is­la­tor. 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.”

Edu­ca­tors are also demand­ing leg­is­la­tors repeal a new law that went into effect this sum­mer, which requires they com­plete a 15-hour extern­ship” with a local busi­ness in order to renew their state teach­ing license. The required extern­ship” was billed by Repub­li­can law­mak­ers as a way to advance teach­ers’ pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment and help them con­nect stu­dents to job opportunities.

The new require­ment out­raged many teach­ers, who already attend con­fer­ences and work­shops, as well as pur­sue con­tin­u­ing edu­ca­tion, as part of their pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment. Fort Wayne Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion pres­i­dent Julie Hyn­d­man called it a com­plete insult” this May. It’s anoth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty to demor­al­ize pub­lic school teach­ers that the Indi­ana leg­is­la­tures have con­tin­ued to do, this year and most years pri­or,” she said.

The Indi­ana day of action comes less than one week after teach­ers in Lit­tle Rock, Arkansas went on a one-day strike in defense of their col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights, and one month after 25,000 edu­ca­tors with the Chica­go Teach­ers Union held an 11-day strike for improved school ser­vices and small­er class sizes. In recent weeks, teach­ers have also gone on strike in Ded­ham, Mass­a­chu­setts and Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, among oth­er places, prov­ing that the Red for Ed move­ment is con­tin­u­ing to gain momentum.

While Indi­ana laws pro­hib­it teach­ers from going on strike, sim­i­lar laws have not deterred edu­ca­tors in oth­er states from hold­ing work stop­pages. This is a warn­ing shot,” explained Ken­neth Dau-Schmidt, a labor and employ­ment law pro­fes­sor at Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty. If [state law­mak­ers] 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.”

Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke

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