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Few turn out for Statehouse rally as Indiana educators strive to sustain political momentum

About 100 people gathered for a rally at the Indiana Statehouse in support of increasing funding for traditional public schools.
About 100 people gathered for a rally at the Indiana Statehouse in support of increasing funding for traditional public schools.
Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat

Advocates for traditional public schools gathered Monday at the Indiana Statehouse in an effort to keep education at the top of the legislative agenda. But the rally only drew about 100 people — a fraction of the thousands who turned out for the Red for Ed protest in November.

Monday’s rally, an annual event, comes at a moment when it is clear that the Republican supermajority will not act this year on advocates’ most significant demand — increased funding for schools and higher teacher pay.

Joel Hand, general counsel and lobbyist for the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, attributed the low turnout to the fact that some schools remained open on President’s Day. But he also acknowledged that attendance was far lower than the prior rally.

“There was an awful lot of momentum that was built up in November, and to be fair, I think that that momentum is starting to wane a little bit,” Hand said. “If the public doesn’t get out — if teachers and parents, students, administrators, school board members don’t continue to feel that fire — then we may not have any changes that come about.”

“It’s easy to get people motivated for a one-time thing. It’s a lot harder to maintain that momentum,” he added.

The event was organized by the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, which supports traditional public schools. The state’s largest teachers union, the Indiana State Teachers Association, was not involved.

While the fight for higher teacher pay is certain to continue, the low turnout illustrated how challenging it could be for supporters to sustain enthusiasm until the next legislative session, when lawmakers will approve a new two-year budget. With that delay, meanwhile, advocates will lose some leverage over Gov. Eric Holcomb and other elected officials who are up for reelection in the fall.

After teachers descended on the Statehouse in November, Holcomb pledged to free up $50 million for schools in 2021. A state teacher pay commission is expected to release recommendations for other ways to address the issue this spring.

On several other issues that educators have raised, lawmakers have swiftly responded. They have moved to roll back a controversial externship requirement for teachers renewing their licenses, decouple teacher evaluations from test scores, and hold schools and educators harmless from low state test results.

But those steps are not enough for many advocates.

“The legislators basically ignored us in November,” said Christine Davenport, who teaches English language learners in Monroe County. “I’m here because I want to make sure they know that we’re not going away. We’re not going to be quiet.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick channeled some of the frustration that many educators feel toward politicians who say they support teacher pay raises but have not significantly increased funding.

“It’s easy to make promises, but it’s hard to act. That takes courage, that takes planning, and that takes commitment,” said McCormick, a Republican who often aligns with advocates for traditional public schools. “No more promises. It’s time to act.”

A fourth-grade teacher from Monroe County, Meghann Goetz said she was there to support increased funding for the traditional public school system and a reduced focus on testing.

She said Monday’s rally was about making sure lawmakers have teachers in mind when they are crafting a budget during the next legislative session.

“They are really going to hear from us next year if the budget doesn’t support education and public education in a big way,” Goetz said.

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