State lawmakers might choose not to address some demands teachers and school administrators will make during the upcoming legislative session, but education issues are likely to loom over Indiana politics in the 2020 election season.
All 100 House districts are on the ballot next year, as are 25 of the 50 Senate seats. Gov. Eric Holcomb is seeking re-election and three Democratic candidates are vying for the opportunity to challenge him in November.
Candidates have already started talking about education policy on the campaign trail. Some attended the Nov. 19 Red for Ed rally that drew thousands of teachers and public-education supporters to the Statehouse to voice concerns about issues like teacher pay, licensing requirements and using student test scores to evaluate educators.
The event kicked off what some advocates and politicians say is just the beginning of an effort to shine a light on education concerns.
“I’m certainly not going to let it go,” said Woody Myers, a former Anthem Inc. executive and state health commissioner who is one of three Democratic gubernatorial candidates. “We’re going to be screaming about this … until this changes.”
SupplyKick CEO Josh Owens, who is also running in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, said education is the top issue for his campaign and for the state.
“If state lawmakers don’t take appropriate action and don’t do it quickly enough, it won’t be a rally,” Owens said. “It will go in a different direction.”
Even Holcomb’s campaign is talking education. On the day of the rally, Holcomb was in Florida for the Republican Governor’s Association’s annual conference, but his campaign sent an email to supporters touting his goal of boosting teacher pay. The campaign also posted 13 times on Twitter—more than his campaign posts on a typical day—highlighting how education funding has been a priority for his administration.
The top legislative priorities for education advocates next year are holding teachers and schools harmless for poor standardized test results, eliminating the new teacher licensing requirement that educators spend 15 unpaid hours at a local business, and using some of the state’s surplus to pump cash into K-12 funding—with the hope that some of that would go toward raising teacher salaries.
Legislative leaders are expected to address only one of those issues next year and seem likely to push others—primarily anything related to money—into 2021, when lawmakers will craft the state’s next two-year budget.
But some education officials hope the election year will pressure legislators to take action on more of their demands during the session that begins in January and is scheduled to end in mid-March, less than two months before the primary.
Sally Sloan, executive director of the American Federation of Teachers of Indiana, said the election should prompt lawmakers to weigh the political consequences of their decisions. She remains uncertain about whether the Legislature will consider additional funding in 2020. But, she said, “If people want to get re-elected, and it gets close to getting that to pass, we may see that pass.”
“There are candidates that are taking this very seriously, and they’re talking to teachers,” Sloan said. “I think voters are listening.”
Chad Kinsella, an assistant professor of political science at Ball State University, said the push from teachers during an election year might not have as much impact as some would hope. Republican legislative candidates and Holcomb are in a good position to win re-election in 2020, and Republicans already maintain supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.
Teachers usually aren’t Republican voters to begin with, he said, so threatening to oust some of these elected officials doesn’t carry much weight.
“You have to be careful making that threat, because if you can’t back it up, you’re not going to be taken seriously,” Kinsella said.
Education officials will likely have the most success making sure teachers aren’t held accountable for poor results on ILEARN, a new standardized test that replaced ISTEP+.
Short for Indiana Learning Evaluation Assessment Readiness Network, ILEARN is computer-adaptive, meaning questions get harder or easier as students get answers right or wrong. It also focuses more than its predecessor on skills linked to college- and career-readiness.
Nearly two-thirds of all Indiana students in grades 3-8 did not pass ILEARN, according to results released in September. The latest test scores represent a 13-percentage-point drop in the passing rate compared with ISTEP’s results last year—and the lowest statewide passing rate in recent history: 37.1%.
Typically, the test results are used to grade schools and evaluate teachers, which can affect their raises. But the latest results would have meant most schools would receive an F. So Holcomb and state Schools Superintendent Jennifer McCormick are asking the Legislature to approve a one-year delay in consequences for both schools and teachers.
Indiana House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said lawmakers have already agreed to take that action next year.
That’s the easy demand to meet.
It’s unclear whether lawmakers will act on other teacher demands: additional funding for schools and repealing a relicensing requirement that took effect this year.
At least one bill will be filed to address the licensing mandate, which requires teachers to receive training that could include a 15-hour externship at a local business or training in career navigation or local economic needs.
Sen. J.D. Ford, D-Indianapolis, has already said he will author the legislation, and Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, said he has asked Ford to work with him on the bill. Melton is also running for governor.
Indiana State Teachers Association President Keith Gambill said the externship requirement tries to solve a problem—that educators are disconnected from the needs of companies—that doesn’t exist.
“If there is a sense that school districts are out of touch with the needs of the community or business believes students are missing out on an opportunity to learn about what to do after high school,” he said, “then we think there are better ways to achieve that than through this externship.”
Owens said the requirement “was ill advised” and “should be addressed immediately.”
Behning said he’s not sure legislators will have an appetite for repealing the mandate, but that they are open to tweaking it and possibly making it optional—or applying it only to teachers of certain grade levels.
“I don’t know exactly what the resolution is going to be at this point in time,” he said.
The funding request is likely to be the hardest battle for educators to win. That’s because it’s a non-budget-writing year and Republicans are generally opposed to using one-time dollars to pay for an ongoing expense.
“The money that’s in for education, it’s already a done deal,” Kinsella said.
Gambill said the state is expected to end the year with $400 million more in revenue than originally estimated, and ISTA would like to see $75 million go toward education.
“We know that Indiana has a $2 billion surplus,” he said. “We’re not talking about that money.”
Gambill knows asking for funding in the 2020 session will “be a heavy lift,” but “it still remains one of our issues that we’ll want to continue to pursue.”
Behning said “all options are on the table,” but reopening the budget in an off year typically isn’t one lawmakers pursue. And he said giving teachers a one-time bonus won’t address the larger goal of increasing teacher pay long term.
“I am committed to trying to drive more money to our educators,” he said. “But I don’t know how we build anything into a base in an off year.”
Some Democrats have questioned why it’s so difficult to reopen the budget and argue the problem can’t wait until 2021.
“We’ve done it for other issues,” Melton said. “Why shouldn’t we do it for something this important?”
Owens and Myers also said they support reopening the budget to funnel more dollars toward K-12 education, but Myers echoed a Republican concern about using surplus funding.
“It is not a long-term strategy to take from the surplus,” he said. “That’s a short-term injection.”
Holcomb’s position on repealing the externship requirement from the teacher licensing process and on allocating additional funding to K-12 next year is unclear. His office did not respond to IBJ before deadline.•