Indiana teachers rally against GOP education plan

More than 1,000 Indiana teachers swarmed the Indiana Statehouse Tuesday for a rowdy rally denouncing the sweeping education proposals moving through the Republican-dominated state House and Senate.

Teachers said they felt disrespected by Gov. Mitch Daniels and state Superintendent Tony Bennett, both Republicans, who have pushed to restrict teacher collective bargaining, tie teacher salaries with student performance and create vouchers that would direct taxpayer money to private schools. Teachers said GOP leaders want to erode funding for traditional public schools and run schools like a business.

"Teachers have raised these concerns over and over again to this administration," said Matt Carroll, who teaches English at Mishawaka High School in northern Indiana. "We feel like every reason we have, every bit of experience we have is being totally ignored."

It was certainly hard to ignore cheering teachers Tuesday as they filled a second-floor atrium, lined Statehouse staircases and peered over balconies from the third and fourth floors. One teacher carried a sign reading "save public education from Tony the Terminator and Mitch the Knife." Tipton County art teacher James Huntley painted a caricature of Daniels with "education sell-out" stamped on his forehead.

"He wants to privatize schools," Huntley said of Daniels.

Teachers around the state already have raised complaints about the governor's agenda in local meetings, letters-to-the-editor and other forums, but Tuesday's rally allowed them share their opinions directly — and loudly— with lawmakers gathered in Indianapolis for the 2011 legislative session.

Dozens of teachers packed the House gallery and lined the chambers' windows as lawmakers debated a bill aimed at expanding charter schools, which are public schools free of certain regulations and, often, union contracts. Many minority Democrats seized the chance for a friendly audience and made fiery speeches railing against the bill and other parts of Daniels' education agenda.

Teachers cheered on opponents and booed supporters. They made so much noise that a House leader asked them at least twice to quiet down so the debate could be heard.

The House eventually approved the charter school proposal on a 59-37 mostly party-line vote.

Republicans who support Daniels' proposals said the extensive changes are meant to reform Indiana's education system and make students — not teachers or their unions — the top priority.

"As always, the union's demand is more money, no change," Daniels said in a written statement. "Their priority is their organization, not the young people of Indiana."

Bennett said good teachers have nothing to worry about.

"Fear breeds these empty suspicions that there is some conspiracy to destroy public education," Bennett said. "My goal — and what I believe we are doing — is advancing an agenda that is pro-child, but also will save and preserve public education."

State Republican Party Chairman Eric Holcomb said the Indiana State Teachers Association spends millions each year on political campaigns and efforts such as Tuesday's rally to "defend policies that treat ineffective teachers no differently than outstanding teachers."

"The hundreds of professional educators lobbying at the Statehouse today represent hundreds not in the classroom," Holcomb said in a written statement.

Indiana State Teachers Association President Nate Schnellenberger said the union hasn't held a rally in years and that teachers felt they had to speak out this year.

"They absolutely feel that not only are they being attacked, but public education is being attacked — unjustly," Schnellenberger said.

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