INDIANAPOLIS – More than 15,000 people were expected to flood downtown Indianapolis on Tuesday for what could be the largest Indiana Statehouse rally in more than 20 years.
The Red for Ed Action Day, organized by the Indiana State Teachers Association and other labor groups, was expected to include educators from every corner of the state showing up as lawmakers return to kick off the 2020 legislative session.
By 7:30 a.m., a small corps was drumming on buckets in front of the Statehouse's main entrance and the south lawn was dotted with teachers and their supporters – all decked out in red.
By 9 a.m., the entire south lawn was full and crowds wrapped around the building. A marching band took up residence on the steps, whipping the crowd into a frenzy.
Why they're marching: Teacher pay driving thousands
Keith Gambill, ISTA president, said teachers were there to demand bold action from lawmakers.
If lawmakers don't take action?
"There’s an election in November," he said.
The crowd, already thousands of teachers strong, erupted into a chant of “we will vote.” Chants of "we will vote you out of here," followed.
Chasten Buttigieg, who is married to South Bend, Indiana, mayor and Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, tweeted support for the rally.
All public school teachers deserve a competitive and livable wage, as well as the necessary resources to make sure their students thrive. As a Hoosier and an educator, I am proud to stand with our teachers today. It is time to #FundOurFuture and give them a raise! #RedforEd— Chasten Buttigieg (@Chas10Buttigieg) November 19, 2019
Rally moves inside
After brief remarks on the steps of the Statehouse, demonstrators marched around the Indiana government center carrying signs saying "we expect respect" and "keep great teachers in Indiana."
At least one passerby showed support, holding out of a car window a sign that said, "we support you – parents."
Others honked as they drove by and the crowd cheered "red for ed."
And the Red for Ed March is starting. pic.twitter.com/RxURihMBL0— MJ Slaby (@mjslaby) November 19, 2019
Inside the Statehouse, Indiana State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick received a standing ovation from teachers seated in chairs on the floor and crowding around the balconies.
McCormick, a Republican surrounded by Democrats on stage, surprised many in October 2018 when she announced she would not seek a second term. She will be the last to hold the position, which will be eliminated in favor of a governor-appointed secretary of education in 2021.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, received a rock star's welcome, with teachers lining up to take selfies with her. And when she took the stage, the crowd erupted.
"Teachers want what children need, and we will fight to get it," Weingarten said, receiving chants of "Randi, Randi, Randi."
Gov. EricHolcomb releases a statement
“We’re here to send a message to the governor that we won’t put up with it anymore,” said Brett Voorhies, president of the Indiana AFL-CIO.
But Gov. Eric Holcomb wasn’t there. He is at the Republican Governor’s Association meeting in Florida. According to Holcomb’s office, the event has been on his schedule since last year. Holcomb is the organization’s public policy chairman.
“Today is a great opportunity for educators, families and community members to express their voice at the people’s house,” he said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. “I remain committed to finding long-term sustainable solutions to increase teacher compensation.”
Earlier this year, Holcomb created a commission to study Indiana’s teacher pay problem and look for solutions. It’s expected to make recommendations to the General Assembly ahead of the 2021 budget-writing session.
“As we continue to seek systemic improvements, it’s essential we retain and attract great teachers to ensure Hoosier students receive the best education our state can offer,” Holcomb said.
Holcomb’s campaign was fundraising off the teacher pay issue Tuesday. The campaign sent a fundraising request email with the subject line: “Governor Holcomb’s Goal: Boosting Teacher Wages.”
Teachers in the House chamber
Red for Ed chants coming from the atrium of the Statehouse briefly interrupted Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma as he began remarks to open the legislature's Organization Day.
Bosma, who announced he would not seek another term, spoke about ILEARN as teachers sat in the gallery. The House Speaker touted the state's move to the tests, prompting teachers in the room to shake their heads.
Some teachers applauded when Bosma said he wanted to look at decoupling teacher evaluations and assessments from the test.
ILEARN replaced the much-maligned ISTEP test last spring.
Rhonda Knerr, Theresa Simpson and a handful of other teachers from Edgewood Primary School in Ellettsville waited more than an hour to get through security for the afternoon rally inside the Statehouse where teachers shared their experiences with everything from testing to low pay before Gambill echoed earlier comments calling on lawmakers to “do right by our students or we’ll make it right in November.”
Only a fraction of those who gathered outside earlier in the day, though, made it inside. Previous expectations of the main floor filled to capacity with more than 10,000 educators were overblown; the crowd of several thousand packed into one half of the building.
'You shouldn't be that discouraged'
Jack Graves, who leads the autism program at James A Garfield School 31, said he’s been teaching for 10 years – and also working at a restaurant for seven of those years to help pay the bills.
Working at the restaurant is “my car payment and my fun money,” he said, adding that he stays in education because he thinks it’s important.
Tuesday was the first time he’d been at an action day for education. Graves said it was a lot bigger than he expected. For him, attending was about showing support. Graves said he sees how defeated and burnt out his fellow teachers are.
“You shouldn’t be that discouraged,” Graves said.
Willandra Malone was up at 4 a.m. and made the trip from her home in Edinburgh where she teaches fourth grade. She met at a colleague's house at 6 a.m. and, along with Malone's son, they rode the IndyGo bus to the capitol building.
"I'm here to stand up for my students," Malone said. "My babies, our babies, need more."
More than half of Indiana public school districts closed
More than half of the state’s public school districts closed for the event after thousands of teachers requested the day off to lobby for better pay, among other things.
While some districts are having an “e-learning day” for students, most will make up the day later in the school year.
Christine Elkin said she and 160 of her colleagues loaded charter buses at 6 a.m. to join the rally.
Elkin, a fifth grade teacher, has been in the classroom for 15 years and said the profession needs more educators.
"Our class sizes are getting larger and larger each year," she said, "and we don't feel like we're able to do the best for our kids anymore."
Reigan Blair teaches 7th grade math. She and her co-workers left at 5 a.m. central time to be in Indianapolis for Tuesday's rally.
"We don't have the money to support our students, we don't have the money for resources."
She said she's had to pay out of her pocket for supplies – everything from rulers and colored pencils to even copy paper.
Blair said she's been teaching for 27 years and has never attended a rally this large. "I'm awestruck."
Zoey Hernandez, 9, was standing outside the Statehouse holding a sign decorated with red rickrack trim, stars and polka dots in the bubble letters that read “You can’t put students first if you put teachers last.”
She came to the rally with her mom, Charlotte Hernandez, and older brother Michael.
Charlotte Hernandez is a teacher and got the kids up at 5 a.m. to attend the rally.
“I hate that the headlining thing is our salary,” she said. “That is important but, for me, what’s most important is that my kids are getting a quality education and that they’re getting the funding they deserve.”
For Dori Myers, pay is central. A teacher for 20 years, Myers said she just broke $40,000 last year. She's worked second and third jobs bartending, waiting tables and as a cashier at convenience stores.
"We're tired of the disrespect, the low pay," she said. "Our kids are tested beyond belief.
"Our kids need a voice and it has to be us."
She added that she hopes that lawmakers don't think Tuesday is just about teacher pay, but about funding to support students.
Unprecedented level of action
If even half of those who registered for the event show up, it will be one of the largest Statehouse rallies in recent memory and an unprecedented level of action by the state’s teachers.
“We’re energized,” Gambill said. “We’ve been doing everything we can over the years. … Still it doesn’t seem to have registered with folks in the Legislature that this is a serious matter.”
Gambill said last-in-the-nation wage growth, average pay that lags regional peers and a prolonged teacher shortage have Indiana at a crisis point.
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said Monday that teacher pay would probably have to wait until the next budget writing session, in 2021. The state’s latest two-year budget was finalized in May.
“We have more than 1 million students in public education,” Gambill said. “They can’t wait for us to get to another budget year, and they deserve better than this.”
Follow IndyStar education reporter Arika Herron on Twitter: @ArikaHerron
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This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Red for Ed Action Day: Indiana teachers march, public schools close