Dear Representatives Aaron Freeman and Cindy Kirchhofer, Senators Todd Young and Mike Braun, and Governor Eric Holcomb,
I write to you all in the wake of the incredible show of unity among Indiana’s teachers and friends of public education, which was on display at the Indiana Statehouse lawn during the Red for Ed Action Day rally on November 19th. I hope most of you were able to witness that grand demonstration of grassroots democracy in action. I hope, like they did for me, the sights and sounds of 20,000 teachers standing in solidarity stoked your inner American fire of patriotism. I have singled you out in this open letter because each of you represents me in my state government. You currently hold the keys to the future of public education in the great state of Indiana.
Governor Holcomb, I understand you were out of town for another commitment on Nov. 19th. That was just a bit of unfortunate timing, I suppose, but I trust you were able to take it all in through the massive media coverage of the event. I was concerned, however, when you posted a social media response later that same day touting how much money you’ve put into education (you didn’t specify “public” education, I noticed–so did a lot of other people). With all due respect, Governor, that response seemed a bit snarky and it was certainly misleading, given public education received a much smaller percentage of that money than all the other forms of schools. Your response revealed a fundamental ignorance–or deliberate deflection–about how Indiana’s teacher accountability system naturally funnels funds away from underprivileged schools and puts it into schools in comparatively affluent districts with a much lower level of students dealing with the kinds of trauma that so critically impact their ability to perform highly on those arbitrary, inequitable standardized tests. Perhaps you didn’t think that message through, but I must tell you, sir, it was not a good look for you–and we all saw it.
Lady and gentlemen public servants, I am writing this public letter to you all to inform you before the citizens of Indiana and God Almighty, that I am in possession of your votes and I am holding them hostage. In a moment, I’m going to reveal my list of demands for getting your votes back from me. At that point, the ball will be in your court. It just so happens that all of you are Republicans, but I assure you, if I had a Democratic representative, they’d be included in this letter, too. Public education is a foundational right of all Americans. It should not be a political issue. But some of your Republican predecessors chose to make it completely political about 15 years ago. As I watched in disbelief the systematic attacks on public education by the likes of Mitch Daniels, Tony Bennett, Mike Pence, and the Republican supermajority in the state legislature, this former Republican turned tail and skedaddled from your ranks and I have not looked back. I saw the writing on the wall back then and I fled for higher political ground without regret. While you all didn’t start this mess, you’ve done nothing thus far to fix it. At one time I swore I’d never vote for another Republican but, in hind sight, that might have been an overreaction. So, I am informing you now that I hold your votes in my custody. I am going on the public record here and now to make a vow that, if you begin working now to meet the following demands, I will be willing to release to you these votes I now hold captive, despite which letter might follow your name on the ballot.
Here are my demands:
- Introduce/Support legislation to create a statewide minimum starting salary for new teachers of at least $40,000 per year.
Indiana’s average starting salary for a first year teacher is somewhere in the area of $35,000. Of course, as an average, that means that many places are significantly lower than that. Starting teacher pay is among the lowest of any profession which requires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. Most new teachers enter the profession swimming in debt from student loans. It’s shameful that they must begin a professional career at such a low starting level of income. Honestly, $40,000 isn’t high enough, but it’s a start.
2. Reinstate the graduated pay scales and retro-fit salaries to the levels they would be had those scales not been eliminated in the first place.
This goes hand-in-hand with demand #1. When the state of Indiana pulled the rug out from under teachers by removing the graduated pay scales about a decade ago, the teacher pay issue began to become a critical problem. Before this heinous act by our state lawmakers was committed, a new teacher, despite their paltry starting salary, could look at that graduated pay scale and find hope. With a guaranteed bump in salary of around a $1,500 to $2,500 with each year of experience up to 20-25 years, it was plain to see that, after putting in a few years, a teacher’s salary would eventually grow to become much more respectable. Since the state took that away and based salary increases on their convoluted, inequitable formula tied to standardized test scores, it’s just become the luck of the draw as to whether a teacher gets any raise at all. This system has produced one of the most shameful statistics anywhere to be found in this crisis: Indiana’s teachers now make, with inflation rates figured in, 10% less per year in 2019 than they did in 1998. It has also created an unacceptable income gap within the teaching profession itself as educators who teach in more affluent districts with a lower percentage of troubled, underprivileged students reap the benefits of this monetary redistribution system while teachers who teach in districts ravaged by poverty, crime, drug and gang problems, and high percentages of trauma-scarred students languish year after year by being labeled failing and seeing their money funneled away. This reverse-Robin Hood policy which robs from the poor and gives to the rich simply must cease. It adds exponentially to the critical teacher shortage by creating a competition between school districts. This one step alone would solve a great deal of the teacher pay issues without having to add much, if any, new monies to the budget.
3. Create a board of current teacher-advisors to meet regularly with state leaders to develop and oversee an equitable system for teacher accountability.
Despite a common talking point among those who are hostile toward public education, teachers are NOT afraid of accountability. We do, however, demand that any accountability system be fair and equitable and should include much more teacher input and oversight. The only fair way to hold ME accountable for the learning that happens in MY U.S. history classroom is to test MY students on their knowledge of MY content when they first enter MY classroom on day 1 and then test MY students on the content taught by ME in MY classroom on day 180. The data from those two tests will show you exactly what MY students learned about MY content in MY classroom. You need to create a board of classroom teachers for every tested subject and set them on the task of working together to develop a list of standards to be tested, write the pre and post tests, and then help oversee the testing process and the grading of said assessments. What could be more simple? And here is a side effect that should appeal to you and your constituents; this would cost a tiny fraction of the $100 million now being spent on the dreadfully inept existing testing system. It would eliminate the giant, for-profit corporations now used to create standardized tests which produce the kinds of dismal results we saw last year when more than half of all Hoosier students failed to pass ILEARN. See, that’s saving money…got your attention yet?
4. Repeal the externship requirement for renewal of licensing.
Teachers are already required to do so much professional development to renew our licenses. This externship nonsense is arbitrary and superfluous. If you want teachers to get a feel for what goes on in businesses outside our field, that’s fine, just build that into our current professional development and have those business leaders come to us. What’s the difference aside from taking a completely unnecessary burden off teachers who are already heavy laden.
5. Require all future Superintendents of Public Instruction to have a minimum level of experience in actual public school classroom teaching and administration.
We saw the writing on the wall when state lawmakers decided to take the position of state superintendent out of the hands of the voters and turn it into an appointed position starting next year. It is clear that the current supermajority doesn’t want the voting public to pull a stunt like we did when Glenda Ritz came out of nowhere to oust the corrupt Tony Bennett in the 2012 election. Then newly elected Governor Mike Pence, immediately began scheming to circumvent the clear will of the people of Indiana (Pence, quite amazingly, received less votes in his gubernatorial race than Ritz did in her election for superintendent, by the way) by creating a second state board of education and giving it most of Ritz’s power. This was the most outrageously egregious dirty political power play I’ve ever seen, and all we could do was sit there and take it. In the future–and I don’t care what letter follows their name–any appointed Superintendent of Public Instruction should have a minimum of 10 years experience as a public school classroom teacher and/or administrator. We’ve seen what madness can follow when public education outsiders like Betsy DeVoss are put in charge of public education and we want absolutely no part of that in this state.
Those are my demands. There are other changes that need to be made, but I think those five things are a great place to start. Sirs and madam, that sea of red you saw outside your workplace on Nov. 19th was not a rally for the Democratic Party. There were many Republicans among our number. You should think long and hard about that fact…it should give you great pause. As for me, I said I’d had all the Republican knocked out of me by my state’s education policies but I make you this vow; if any of you begin to work diligently to push forward a pro-public education, teacher-friendly agenda, you’ll have my vote, even if there is an R following your name on my ballot.
I hold your votes as hostages and you can have them if you do the right thing, but I will be watching you very closely.
I wrote and recorded a song that expresses my frustrations about what’s happened to public education during my 19 year career as a teacher. I submit it for your consideration. Let’s work together to “break the chain.”
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