On November 19th — in a move celebrated by some, criticized by others — many teachers didn’t show up to work.
While November 19 is hopefully a turning point in Indiana, it is imperative to understand that November 19 was not without just cause. Public education in Indiana has long been neglected. And yet, in spite of this, in spite of a state that ranks dead last for teacher salary increases, spends less money per pupil than neighboring states, and pushes for a system that seems to value private and charter schools more than public schools, Indiana teachers continue to show up. We show up because we love our students and want the very best for our students, even if many legislators in this state have made clear that they don’t have the same vision.
I teach in Hebron, a school corporation that has already passed one referendum simply to stay afloat. We have been hit hard by property tax caps. As the tax is capped at 1% for homes and 2% for farms, we cannot expect the same referenda money as communities with higher median home prices. I live in a proud, strong community, but it is also a community where many struggle to make ends meet. 39% of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch, our food pantry is experiencing higher usage than ever, yet we must ask our cash-strapped community to reach into their pockets for their beloved schools. In light of the historic budget surplus reported in the 2019 fiscal year, this is shameful.
Along with the need to pass referendums, schools have also been hit hard by the introduction of the School Choice program — or vouchers. Introduced in 2011, the idea behind vouchers was to offer a chance for children in failing schools to seek education elsewhere. However, in 2018, a study done by the Indiana Department of Education found that 56% of students using the voucher program never attended a traditional public school. In 2019, this program drained $161 million that could have been allocated to public schools. Not all communities have schools that accept vouchers, but they are still impacted. According to Dr. Phil Downs, superintendent of MSD Southwest Allen County, “there are 23 school districts where no vouchers are used [yet] the voucher program costs them over $4 million this year.”
Ultimately, all of this combined greatly affects urban and rural schools. The funding inequities are such that some schools cannot offer competitive salaries. Hebron offers a starting salary that is several thousand dollars less than schools within 20 miles of us. This makes it incredibly difficult to attract new teachers. The lack of or slow salary growth makes it even more difficult to retain quality teachers, as many of us could move school districts, accept starting teacher pay, and still receive a raise. In fact, with 14 years of experience, my current salary would qualify my children for free or reduced lunch if my husband lost his job. While the statement “teachers knew what they were getting into” has been lobbied about lately, it is untrue. When I began teaching, I was shown a pay scale with yearly salary growth. Indiana later removed the pay steps and now ranks dead last in teacher salary pay raises over the last 15 years.
In spite of these many roadblocks, Indiana teachers continue to show up every day for their students, but on the 19th, we went to Indianapolis. Some used personal days, others closed down schools. For all of us, it meant taking the day to be a voice for our students and our schools. We left Hebron while it was still dark. Despite the early hour, we were joined by students, a parent, and our superintendent. The energy on the 19th was electric. We knew it would be big, but we were entirely unprepared for the numbers we saw outside the Statehouse. Inside the building, we were greeted by Dr. McCormick, Senator Melton, and Representative Beck. While it may often seem like our elected officials in Indiana do not support education, those who were readily available on the 19th served as a reminder that we do have advocates. Some expressed their open support, still, others maintained the theory of local control and clung to the idea that the school board determines funding of each individual school. While correct, a school board can only fund with the money it is given. As previously expressed, the many inequities in public education funding in our state leaves some school boards working with significantly less funds than others.
Outside the empty governor’s office, we witnessed many inspiring speeches. Randi Weingarten, President of AFT, received a deafening round of applause when she said, “Teachers want what children need, and we will fight to get it.” For me, the most inspiring moment was at the end of the press conference, when audience members were given time to speak. A 6th grader from Hebron bravely walked to the microphone that was taller than his head, took a breath and said, “Do the state representatives love us kids? And if so, why don’t they show it?”
After all, isn’t this what this is all about? On the surface, it may seem like taking a day off or closing down a school sends a message that kids aren’t important, but it is entirely the opposite. November 19 happened because we love our students, because we are tired of our elected officials not seeing the value in them. To some, it may seem like this is a drastic action. However, we have written letters, we have emailed, we have held walk-ins and rallies before and after school, we have marched in parades. We have arranged meetings with our elected officials and invited them to our classrooms. We have asked time and time again for our voices to be heard, but they aren’t being heard. We were heard on November 19, and we will continue to do whatever it takes to be heard.