RALLY: More than 1,000 people came to the Indiana Statehouse on Saturday to support increases in school funding and teacher pay at a rally hosted by the Indiana State Teachers Association. CNHI News Indiana photo by Scott L. Miley
RALLY: More than 1,000 people came to the Indiana Statehouse on Saturday to support increases in school funding and teacher pay at a rally hosted by the Indiana State Teachers Association. CNHI News Indiana photo by Scott L. Miley
INDIANAPOLIS -- Sandy Heath held a handwritten sign inside the Indiana Statehouse on Saturday that described her frustration with funding for teachers.

Her daughter, who is a teacher in Lafayette, makes about $36,000 a year. The daughter's student loan totals $50,000. Heath's sign noted that the combined figures "equal no money to live."

"Our kids are suffering," she said. "They want to have a family and they can't." 

Heath was among more than 1,000 educators, retired teachers and school board members who filled one end of the Statehouse in a sea of red shirts worn to show support for increasing school funding and pay for Indiana teachers.

The afternoon rally, held despite the weekend absence of the Indiana General Assembly, was hosted by the Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA). Gov. Eric Holcomb has recommended a 2.1 percent funding increase for next year but teacher groups say they need at least 3 percent increase to cover inflation.

"The governor has said that he is walking towards us, that the Legislature's working on this and they hope we don't walk out on them, but I would say to the governor, 'Come closer,'" ISTA President Teresa Meredith said. "We get it that they can't fix it overnight, but we know they can fix it if they're willing to sit down and talk with us and build a long-term plan."

Kim Patterson, who teaches at Eastern Middle School in Greentown, was near the speakers' stage hoping to show solidarity with others from her community.

"I am tired of the disrespect from legislators," said Patterson, a former president of her classroom teachers association. "They're supposed to meet the need of their constituents. Instead when we meet with them we end up feeling shamed and disrespected."

The night before the rally, Patterson, a teacher of 24 years, attended a town hall session with four of her area legislators in Kokomo.

"It was not productive for teachers and for those who love teachers to talk to them," she said. "Basically the message we received last night was that they have the facts and we have misconceptions and misunderstandings.

"My colleagues don't make a good living and they won't make a good living with the current situation of education in Indiana."

Alison West came from Terre Haute to show "how dire the situation is," she said. "I feel like in Vigo County, we are a little bit more comfortable than the smaller school corporations around us but I see a lot of the smaller rural corporations get choked out literally year after year.

"The teacher shortage has affected us in Vigo County as well as all over the state, and a lot of it has to do with retaining quality teachers," she added.

On average, Indiana teachers earn $57,696 annually, the lowest among neighboring states; Michigan is the highest at $71,773, according to one report. 

So far, the House Ways and Means Committee has submitted a proposal, passed by House, to increase K-12 funding by 2.1 percent in 2020 and by 2.2 percent in 2021, bringing a $461 million boost.

The proposal has been sent to the Senate, which will develop its own budget plan for the entire state, including education. The chambers will then negotiate a final bill.

However, the House plan, based on Gov. Eric Holcomb's request, takes $150 million from the state surplus to pay current teacher pensions needs. In turn, that is to free up $70 million for local districts each year. The plan asks that districts use the savings for classroom needs, but there is no mandate for the House request.

On Thursday, the Senate discussion begins in the School Funding Subcommittee of Senate Appropriations Committee. 

Among provisions in House Bill 1003, the legislation urges school districts to make "every reasonable" effort to put 85 percent of its education fund into the classroom.

"There's no new money in that bill so they're asking school corporations to basically pull it out of administrative positions and other areas to try to do a teacher raise," said State Rep. Melanie Wright, D-Yorktown. Wright, who was wearing a red jacket at the rally, is a K-6 music teacher. "The tricky part about that is that it also has to be sustainable," she said. "It can't just be two-year fix or a one-year fix."

Red shirts and jackets symbolized a push for more funding for public education. Striking teachers in other states such as West Virginia and Arizona have worn "Red for Ed" shirts to show solidarity.

In mid-February, Holcomb announced his Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission, an appointed group of volunteers looking at making pay equitable with surrounding states. The seven-member commission is to deliver a report before the 2021 legislative session.

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