A sea of 15,000 educators and supporters, filling the hub of Indiana’s government last month, apparently got Gov. Eric Holcomb’s attention.

His agenda for the upcoming 2020 session of the General Assembly reflected some concerns raised by the Red For Ed rally at the Statehouse on Nov. 5. Teachers called for increased pay, less emphasis on standardized testing and ending a requirement for teachers to commit 15 unpaid hours to learning their community’s workforce needs, among other issues.

Holcomb announced his legislative agenda Tuesday in Terre Haute. His objectives on education did not satisfy state teachers organizations or the minority Democratic Party, but do show Holcomb as more willing to address problems with the current educational system than fellow Republicans in the Legislature. His leadership will be necessary if teachers hope to see any of their concerns addressed in 2020, given that Holcomb’s party continues to hold overwhelming control of the Indiana House and Senate.

The 15-hour “externship” imposed on teachers by legislators is a prime example. Hoosier teachers’ most common license renewal path is through a professional growth plan. That process amounts to 90 hours of activities over a five-year span, ranging from conferences to online courses and workshops. An “externship” involves 15 of those hours spent learning about their community’s workforce needs. The policy presumes teachers are not already aware of their local economy or the jobs available in their hometowns. And, it is yet another state mandate piled on Hoosier public school teachers.

Holcomb wants the 15-hour externships to be optional, saying that business leaders and the Indiana Department of Workforce Development should convey details on local workforce needs to the schools. Legislators have declared governors to be the top education policymakers by changing the state superintendent of public instruction from an elected office to one appointed by the governor, starting in 2021. Therefore, legislators should heed Holcomb’s preference and make those externships optional.

Teachers’ pay level is a prime problem for Indiana. The state ranked last in America in teacher salary growth from 2002 to 2017, according to a Rockefeller Institute report. Legislators took a helpful step to remedy the problem in their 2019 session by backing Holcomb’s plan to use $150 million of Indiana’s surplus funds to pay off schools’ pension liabilities, potentially freeing up money for teacher pay increases. Decisions on how to use those funds, though, were left to local districts whose financial situations vary.

In February, the governor assembled a Teacher Compensation Committee to study ways to make Indiana teachers’ pay competitive with other states. That panel is scheduled to give the governor and legislators its recommendations prior to the 2021 legislative session. Holcomb aims for Indiana to rank among the Midwest’s top three states for teacher pay, a goal that has not been a stated priority for the legislative leadership.

The governor also, again, called on lawmakers to hold teachers and school districts for low scores on the state’s most recent iteration of a high-stakes standardized test — ILEARN.

All those admirable steps by the governor address problems spawned by the Legislature’s misdirected reforms during the past decade.

The Indiana State Teachers Association called for more direct remedies. The union on Wednesday demanded legislators boost teacher salaries next year by tapping into $75 million of the state’s $2.3-billion budget surplus, instead of waiting until Holcomb’s committee issues its recommendations in 2021. Also, the ISTA wants teacher evaluations unhitched from standardized test results, an end to the unpaid externships, reimbursements for training and a grant program to increase the number of school counselors.

There is clearly a gap between the perspectives of the men and women who marched at the Statehouse last month, and the legislators who hold power there. The governor appears to stand near the middle. With Holcomb as their party’s top educational policymaker, those legislators should move closer to where he stands.
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