Big Indiana teachers rally prompts many school closings

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Tens of thousands of Indiana students are having a school day called off as their teachers make plans to attend a union-organized Statehouse rally that could signal an increase in educator activism regarding teacher pay and other issues.

Some school district officials say with so many teachers requesting personal time off for the Nov. 19 rally, they decided to shut their doors because they wouldn't be able to find enough substitute teachers to cover classrooms. But they also say they support the push by teachers for a bigger boost in school funding.

Leaders of the state's two main teacher unions project that 5,000 or more teachers could attend the Statehouse lobbying effort on the day that members of the Republican-dominated Legislature are gathering for organizational meetings ahead of their 2020 session that starts in early January.

More than 35 of the state's nearly 300 school districts had canceled classes by Thursday afternoon or were having students work online from home, according to teacher union counts. Those ranged from large urban districts in Indianapolis, Evansville, South Bend and Hammond to small rural districts such as North Miami Community Schools, which has 900 students.

Indiana State Teachers Association President Keith Gambill said many of the union's members are frustrated because they have seen little or no pay raises in a decade but face additional demands from the state. He said this is despite them writing letters, attending hometown meetings with lawmakers and holding Statehouse rallies on Saturdays.

"For too many legislators that message just hasn't gotten through to them," Gambill said. "In a state where over 90% of Hoosier families send their child to a public school, we have to do better by our public schools."

Large protests have come elsewhere amid a wave of teacher activism that began last year in West Virginia and spread to other states, including Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona.

Indiana Democrats and teacher unions panned the new state budget approved by Republicans in April that boosted base school spending by 2.5% each of the next two years.

Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and GOP legislative leaders touted the plan as making strides toward improving teacher pay. But they faced criticism for not directing some of the state's $2 billion in cash reserves toward schools and for a funding distribution plan that increased traditional school district funding by about 2% a year, while charter schools saw 10% more money and private school voucher funding increased 9% the first budget year and about 5.5% the second year.

School districts canceling classes will have to make up the school day to meet the state's 180-day requirement, with some already saying they will have classes on a day set aside in case of a snow day.

The widespread school closures might not even help the teachers' cause as lawmakers don't typically take up big money matters during sessions after they've approved the two-year state budget, said Betsy Wiley, president of the advocacy group Institute for Quality Education, which backs Indiana's charter school and private school voucher programs.

"Whether you support or don't support the cause, I don't think it's right to close school and not provide education to those kids and inconvenience those students and families on that day," Wiley said.

State schools Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who has split from many fellow Republicans on education policy issues, is backing the rally dubbed "Red for Ed Action Day."

"Their mobilization effort demonstrates the need for legislative action in regard to adequate and equitable K-12 funding impacting educators and support staff compensation, as this is an issue that cannot be solved at the local level alone," McCormick said in a statement. "Being the 50th state out of 50 in salary increases since 2002 is not acceptable."

The governor's office said in a statement that local school districts could decide what is best for their students and that Holcomb has made finding ways for long-term teacher pay improvement a top priority.

"He will continue to seek innovative ideas to ensure Indiana attracts and retains top teachers, and our students receive the best education," the statement said.

Tim Tahara, superintendent of the Concord Community Schools near Elkhart in northern Indiana, said he decided to cancel Nov. 19 classes after more than 100 teachers notified the district they would be taking the day off, which far exceeded the number of available substitute teachers.

Tahara said he supported the teachers' goals and didn't expect a backlash from parents over the school closure.

"I think by and large our parents agree that this is just an important job helping raise our children and making them productive citizens, so why can't teachers get more pay for what they do?" he said.

The teacher unions are also pushing for a rollback in the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers and schools after lower scores on the state's new ILEARN standardized exam taken last spring. They also want the repeal of new license requirements adopted this year requiring teachers to log 15 hours of professional development regarding the needs of local employers.

"For last year, easily, teachers have been saying we need to take some action," said Sally Sloan, executive director for the American Federation of Teachers Indiana. "We think this is just the beginning."

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