7/24/19 Leading the march

State Rep. Sheila Klinker and West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis, center, lead the "Red for Ed" march in July.

Thousands of teachers and advocates will head to Indianapolis in droves this week to demand legislative measures that increase support for the public school system.

The mobilization is headed by more than 12,000 Indiana teachers and has resulted in school closures for over 100 districts. The West Lafayette Community School Corporation has opted not to cancel school and will instead stage its second annual walk-in Tuesday. Eight teachers were chosen to represent WLCSC at the statewide event instead of having the majority of faculty be present.

Marydell Forbes, the West Lafayette Education Association co-president, said she designed the local walk-in to include parents, students and community members in addition to educators.

Supporters will sport red attire and gather outside of West Lafayette High School, Intermediate School and Elementary School before school starts to display solidarity with public educators across the state. After a round of speakers deliver remarks, students and teachers will continue inside the buildings and proceed with normal educational activities.

The official Indianapolis rally is sponsored by “Red for Ed,” an organization that strives to create optimal learning environments for public school students by lending a voice to educators during the creation of legislation. The eight faculty members chosen to represent West Lafayette schools will join other public school teachers in voicing specific legislative demands to the Indiana General Assembly.

Randy Studt, an educator of 35 years who currently teaches German at West Lafayette High School, said participating members have agreed on three prominent requests: holding students and teachers harmless when evaluating the results of a notoriously difficult Indiana Learning Evaluation Assessment Readiness Network test, repealing the externship that currently mandates teachers must spend 15 hours doing business-related activities to renew their licenses and raising average teacher salaries in Indiana from $50,614 to $60,000 annually.

As former president of the WLEA, Studt said the rocky relationship between the Indiana legislature and public school teachers is well-documented.

In the past two decades, the state has expanded support and funding for private and charter schools, while alternative options are not subject to the same scrutiny as public schools. Indiana’s voucher program, enacted in 2011, provides scholarships to families in the private school system and is now one of the nation’s largest, according to the state government’s website.

“The committee chairs of education for both the State Senate and House are longtime supporters of conservative ideas like charter schools and vouchers, both of which are draining a huge amount of money out of the public school system.” Studt said. “I would expect that the action we’re taking on Tuesday is going to cause some of them to propose bills that probably will be a way of smacking us back.”

State Rep. Chris Campbell, who represents West Lafayette, said that as part of the Democratic minority in the State House of Representatives, her colleagues’ recent efforts to combat financial shortcomings were stifled by the Republican majority in both chambers of Congress. Meanwhile, funding for charter schools and voucher programs is slated to increase at a more rapid pace than funding for traditional public schools, Campbell said.

“Private and charter schools are not held to the same standards for equal opportunity or employment practices as our traditional public schools,” Campbell said. “Indiana should not be taking on funding private and creating additional for-profit schools when it can’t afford the traditional schools it already has.”

Republican State Sen. Ron Alting has represented Tippecanoe County since 1998. The Lafayette Jefferson High School graduate said he’s been a staunch advocate for public education despite the opposition he’s faced from other GOP members.

“I’ve often said to my colleagues, ‘If your son or daughter went and got a degree and came out of college in debt, would you support them making $35,000 a year and having to wait on tables in the evening?’” Alting said, referring to the average starting salary for teachers in Indiana. “In a job that important? I can’t think of a more important job than that of a teacher, and that’s what we pay them.”

Alting emphasized his agreement with the conservative philosophy that the free market provides people with options, but disavowed the voucher program for the high family income it requires to qualify for the scholarship.

Although he’s in favor of faith-based schooling, the senator said the intention of alternatives to public school should be to increase success rates in underprivileged communities, not to aid families making over six-figure incomes.

The Indiana state legislature passed a budget in the first half of 2019 that allocated $539 million more dollars into K-12 education. Alting regarded the deal as a success, but said one-time spending will not function as a substitute to the consistent annual revenue needed to boost teacher pay and per-student spending, which sits at approximately $8,500, low enough to rank Indiana 47th among the 50 states, according to the National Education Association.

The Lafayette School Corporation and Tippecanoe County School Corporation each made the decision to cancel school Tuesday in response to the multitude of teachers electing to take personal days to trek to Indianapolis. Rocky Killion, the WLCSC superintendent, said the decision not to cancel school was a result of collaborative discussions between himself and teachers.

“We had an agreement early on that we would have representation down in Indianapolis, but we would also do everything we could to maintain the educational integrity of our school day,” Killion said.

Les Huddle, the LSC Superintendent, said the decision to cancel school was not symbolic but administrative, based on a concern for the safety of students who would be unsupervised. He said the administration received over 130 requests for personal days submitted by teachers throughout the school system.

Huddle said he would have preferred the statement to be made in a way that avoided the cancellation of school, as unsupervised children at home add strain to parents’ workdays. Forbes and Killion said they thought students wouldn’t want to make up a school day and therefore chose to send a potentially weaker message with a walk-in in lieu of cancellation.

Killion said he hoped remaining open would serve as a strategy to encourage community members to partake in the Indianapolis rally, which could send a weightier message to legislators.

“I think that’s when legislators will really pay attention,” Killion said. “If there’s not only thousands of teachers in Indianapolis but there’s also thousands of parents and community members.”

In her time as WLEA co-president, Forbes said she’s witnessed tremendous support for public education within the community. She cited a 2017 referendum to raise property taxes for additional education funding that passed with 94% of the vote. Student-council members at West Lafayette High School have coordinated poster-making parties, and the president plans to deliver a speech during the walk-in.

Forbes hopes the efforts of students, parents, teachers and community members are enough to bolster the message Red for Ed wants to send on a national scale: It’s about what’s best for students.

“I want them to look back, remember those special teachers who had a huge impact on their lives and realize that at the end of the day, this is about the students,” Forbes said. “This is about the future Hoosiers who are going to be making the decisions, and they need to be well-educated.”

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