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Ultimately, Indiana voters may have to change state's education policy

More than 13,000 people are expected to assemble inside the Indiana Statehouse on Tuesday in support of public schools and teachers. The Red For Ed Day rally aims to get the attention of state legislators on the day they organize the upcoming 2020 session of the General Assembly.

The participants’ message is that Hoosier teachers, especially new teachers, need better pay, and public schools need proper funding.

Such assemblies – made possible through the Constitution – are powerful tools to affect change. This one deserves a standing ovation.

Public protest is not the only tool of American democracy available to the teachers, students, parents and citizens who gather Tuesday in Indianapolis, though. If state leaders ignore, minimize or back-burner the concerns about public education, Hoosiers can hold them accountable through voting.

Through the past decade, Indiana governors and state legislators generally have not lost their seats because of voter dissatisfaction with public education policies. In this deep red state, the Republican incumbents and candidates win elections based on expectations that they will govern conservatively overall. Single-issue voters rarely disrupt that pattern.

Still, Indiana residents have rebuked the ruling party at the ballot box over its administration of public schools. Hoosiers voted out former superintendent of public instruction Tony Bennett, after he and his reform movement hectically foisted one untested idea after another onto Indiana schools and classrooms. Instead, voters elected Democrat Glenda Ritz, a longtime teacher and librarian, giving her more votes than Mike Pence received in the governor’s race.

Obviously, the election of a superintendent of public instruction is inherently based on voters’ opinions on education policy. And since Bennett and his backers kicked the “reforms” into overdrive in 2009, voters have instead elected Ritz – a Democrat who pushed back against expansion of taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools and for more accountability of charter schools – and then Jennifer McCormick – a Republican who wound up amplifying the need to redirect attention and funds to the public schools.

The ruling reformers’ reaction? Statehouse leadership undermined Ritz and now keep McCormick at arm’s length. Legislators also took away Hoosiers’ ability to choose the state school superintendent and turned it into an office appointed by the governor.

As a result, Indiana voters can only express their displeasure with funding for public schools and teachers through their votes for other state elected offices. Education should become the top issue in the 2020 election, if it is not the top priority of the 2020 session of the General Assembly.

Tuesday’s Statehouse rally may raise awareness. More than 100 school districts, including the Vigo County School Corp. and a handful of others in the Wabash Valley, will be closed so teachers and supporters can attend the event in Indianapolis. Nearly half of Indiana’s 1,046,269 public school kids will be affected.

Perhaps Red For Ed Day will finally get the Statehouse leadership’s attention. Significant steps are needed. Indiana ranks last in the nation for salary growth by teachers since 2002. Thirty-five percent of Indiana teachers are quitting within their first five years of service, and nearly 9 out 10 do so because of low pay, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That affects kids in classrooms. So does the loss of potential funding for their schools that is being diverted to private and charter schools.

Concerned Hoosiers can tell their legislators to remedy the situation in the spring session, or vote for change at the polls next fall.

– (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star