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Scott Elliott

Top Indiana lawmakers signal openness to some — but not all — teacher demands before rally

The thousands of teachers descending on the state capitol Tuesday face an uphill battle when it comes to getting elected officials to raise their salaries. But lawmakers signaled they’d be open to some of their other demands, such as changing the state’s accountability system and rolling back new licensing requirements that educators see as onerous.

During a legislative preview the Indiana Chamber hosted on Monday, the state’s top lawmakers said they were ready to welcome the rallying teachers to the statehouse.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, an Indianapolis Republican, said he bought a new red tie to wear in support of the Red For Ed movement to improve public schools for students and teachers. But he repeated a familiar sentiment when asked about how lawmakers might address the issue of state funding for teacher pay, which is front-of-mind for some of those rallying.

“The issue of teacher pay is a local issue,” he said. “We’re going to try to make that case.”

The state’s largest union, the Indiana State Teachers Association, is calling on lawmakers to allocate some of its $2 billion surplus to education — a demand that initially seemed far fetched considering Indiana’s budget is already set through 2020. But on Monday Bosma didn’t rule out the possibility that the budget could be reopened.

If that happens, though, he said he would want to see the surplus funds go toward paying down the state’s long-term debts. Putting that money into the regular budget, including education requests, would be “irresponsible,” he said, because that revenue stream could not be sustained going forward.

Bosma and other Republicans have pointed out that 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. During the last legislative session, lawmakers approved a 2.5% increase in overall school funding and freed districts from $70 million in pension liabilities for each of the next two years.

However, many Indiana districts have argued that state funding isn’t enough, and have appealed directly to voters to approve a tax increase to fund schools — often amid falling enrollment and property tax caps.

“I don’t think they are unreasonable demands,” Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, said of the teachers’ requests, during Monday’s panel. “Fifteen years of education reform hasn’t necessarily given us the results we want or need.”

Bosma said lawmakers have tried to avoid mandating how state education funding is spent, instead encouraging schools to prioritize funding classrooms and salaries rather than administrative costs. Most recently, lawmakers added a requirement that districts report what percentage of its state funding goes to classrooms. So far Indiana school districts have reported numbers ranging from 90% to 40% of the budget, he said.

“My job tomorrow… is to give some of this information directly to teachers,” Bosma said to media after the panel.

There are other union demands, though, where the Republican supermajority in the legislature seems more prepared to make concessions. Top Republicans, including Gov. Eric Holcomb, have already publicly supported a hold harmless exemption, which would protect teachers and schools from negative effects of low 2019 ILEARN standardized test scores.

Bosma said lawmakers are prepared to “have a conversation” about decoupling the teacher’s evaluations entirely from standardized test results, noting: “Maybe that doesn’t make as much sense as it seemed to 20 years ago.”

He also questioned whether the state’s new requirement that teachers complete 15 hours of unpaid professional development related to their community’s workforce needs to renew their license should be necessary for elementary school teachers. The state teachers union is calling for the requirement to be repealed entirely.

As many as 12,000 teachers are expected to rally at the statehouse on Tuesday, the ceremonial opening day for the legislative session. More than 130 districts have canceled classes as a result, affecting about half of the state’s students.