Indiana teachers push lawmakers for more money for schools

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Some Indiana teachers don’t believe the latest Republican-backed state budget plan does enough to support public schools — and legislative leaders are warning that they might even be faced with tightening up that spending proposal.

Scores of red-wearing teachers spent Tuesday at the Statehouse talking with lawmakers ahead of an afternoon rally calling for additional education money. The rally was coming just hours after the state Senate voted mostly along party lines to advance a budget plan boosting base school funding by 2.7% next school year and 2.2% for the following year.

Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and GOP legislative leaders have touted the importance of addressing Indiana’s lagging teacher salaries, but education advocacy groups estimate a 9% funding increase is needed to boost average teacher pay to the midpoint of Indiana’s neighboring states.

“You can say that you want to help us, and we appreciate that. But we are still behind other states and where we were years ago,” said Amellia Dusch, a middle school English and social studies teacher in New Albany. “I think there is a lot of lip service.”

Senate Republican leaders say that besides the $535 million in additional base school funding over the next two years, their plan would give school districts $30 million more for one-time bonuses to teachers and aims to free up district money by paying off $150 million in future teacher pension obligations.

But Democrats argued those steps were inadequate to give teachers significant pay raises. Senate Republicans rejected Democratic budget proposals aimed at making additional education money available by cutting private school voucher growth and increasing cigarette taxes.

Unrest over teacher pay has roiled legislatures across the country since walkouts began in West Virginia in early 2018. In Kentucky, recurring “sickouts” for teacher protests forced schools to cancel classes earlier this year, and a six-day teacher strike in Los Angeles ended with a 6% pay hike and commitment to smaller classes.

Indiana state schools Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who has split from fellow Republicans on many education policy issues, told the couple hundred teachers at Tuesday’s rally that Statehouse leaders had given a “false promise” of significant teacher pay raises. “We have to do better than that,” she said to loud applause.

Indiana Republican legislative leaders are warning that cuts might be needed in the $34.6 billion, two-year budget after a new state tax revenue forecast is released Wednesday. Leaders say they expect revenue growth will be less than what economists projected in December.

“I expect there’s going to be significantly less funds. I don’t know if that’s $50 million or $250 million,” GOP House Speaker Brian Bosma said. “But it’s not going to be more dollars.”

Senate and House negotiators face a late April deadline for reaching agreement on a budget plan.

Senate budget writers say they have prepared for the prospect of tighter revenue projections by leaving $2.2 billion, or 12.5% of annual state spending, in cash reserves at the end of the budget in July 2021. That’s more than the $1.8 billion, or 11%, proposed by the governor in January.

The head of the state’s largest teachers union blamed low pay as the leading reason why 30% of Indiana teachers leave the profession within their first five years. Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith urged those at the rally to keep up pressure on legislators.

“When the increase for public school funding doesn’t even reach inflation, that’s not OK,” Meredith said.