ELKHART — Thousands of teachers across Indiana convened at the Statehouse for massive Red for Ed rally Tuesday morning to champion for more government funding for public education.

Nearly half of Indiana’s public schools closed after several teachers requested the day off to attend the rally. Locally, that includes Elkhart, Goshen, Concord and Baugo school districts.

But those who couldn’t make it still found a way to make their voices heard in support of the movement in their community.

Clad in red, more than 100 teachers, staff, parents and students and other supporters from Elkhart Community Schools lined up in front of Walker Park on East Bristol Street chanting “Red for Ed.”

Many came bearing signs that read, “Support public education,”  “Our teachers are worth it,” and “Listen to our teachers,” and received honks of support from the passersby. 

The morning was organized by two local moms – Jenni Higgins and Janine Doot – who both have five children at ECS and wanted to show their kids the importance of standing for education.

“We wanted our kids to realize that this wasn’t just a day off from school, but logistically, taking five kids to Indianapolis would’ve been difficult, so we organized this to show the teachers that we support their mission and their fight,” Higgins said.

Higgins said supporting teachers help ensure that children have quality education.

“If we don’t have our kids receiving a good and solid public education, then we’re not parenting,” she said. “So, I feel like whatever we can do to make sure that teachers are empowered then that’s what needs to be done.”

The many supporters there included Kellie Mullins, vice president of the Elkhart School Board, who said everyone in attendance represents what’s best for the community.

“It’s important for us to be together standing side by side making sure that we show the community how valuable and important we are and how it’s very important to recognize the needs of our teachers and all of our staff,” she said.

Aside from being a school board member, Mullins said, all three of her children are a product of Elkhart Community Schools. Her daughter is currently at IUSB preparing to start her student teaching to become a future teacher at the district.

“Not only did these teachers teach my children, but we forget the life lessons that they also give our children day in and day out,” Mullins said. “While we as parents are at work doing our thing, the teachers are the ones taking care of our children, so we need to support them not only as educators but as human beings who deserve to be recognized for what they’re doing for our future.”

Many teachers say they are rallying for better working conditions, higher pay, increased funding for public school classrooms and less emphasis on standardized testing.

“I’m trying to send the message that we need to support students at all levels, but we need funding in order to do that,” Stephanie Rappatta, a music teacher at West Side Middle School, said at the Walker Park. “Our students are more than just a number, so why are we just held to that testing number with our kids who test the whole year.”

Rappatta began teaching nine years ago and although it’s a passion, she said, the low pay is why she believes many colleagues have left the profession or considered it.

“I haven’t seen a raise in a while, so it would be nice to get one,” she said. “If it weren’t for my husband, who has a good and steady job, I’m not sure I would be able to make ends meet month to month without doing a second job beyond what I do every day.”

Dozens of students were also at the local rally, many carrying signs that read “We love our teachers,” “Empower future!” and “Students stand with teachers.”

Elliott Steffen, a fourth-grader at Pinewood Elementary School, said he appreciates his teachers and wants to see them get what they deserve.

“I like the teachers that I’ve had at ECS and I don’t think they’re being treated well because they don’t have good pay,” he said.

Reactions from Statehouse

More than 15,000 teachers were expected to attend the Red for Ed rally in Indianapolis. The rally featured a full day of events allowing attendees time with some of the legislators to voice their concerns directly.

Krista Riblet, a teacher at Elkhart Central High School, said Tuesday was a powerful day for Indiana’s students, teachers and school staff.

“We aren’t afraid anymore,” she said. “We’re ready to fight for what our schools and students need.”

In the 25 years that she’s taught for ECS, Riblet said, she’s hopeful that teachers can affect change.

“Today, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican, Democrat or independent, we are all educators using our collective voices to say that we’ve had enough and it’s time for the Republican leadership to listen to us,” she said.

A group of teachers traveled to the Statehouse by a bus rented by the Elkhart Education Foundation.

“The Elkhart Education Foundation’s mission is to be able to provide extraordinary learning experiences for teachers and students,” said Ashley Boling Molyneaux, the foundation’s executive director. “One of the best ways we can do that is to be supportive of our educators. We were honored to rent a bus to safely drive a group of faculty/staff down to the Statehouse to advocate for a better future for Indiana public schools.”

Eileen Corson, a teacher at Elkhart Memorial High School, said she was at the rally to stand up for her students and her public education family.

“Teachers and support staff in Indiana have been continuously punished by the state,” she said. “I feel so proud of everyone here standing up for the respect that has been denied for so long.”

Melissa Mitchell, co-president of the Goshen Education Alliance, said about 100 teachers from Goshen Community Schools attended the rally Tuesday and the experience was amazing. 

“It was powerful to see such a large number of supporters of public education together in one place,” she said. “This cause matters, the future of our students is at stake. I know many supporters present were able to meet with legislators in person or wrote letters. I hope by seeing such a large number of supporters standing together our legislators realize something has to change, our students deserve better. Schools should not have to rely on referendums to meet their funding needs. Schools need to be fully funded so they can afford to take care of their staff financially.”

Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and leaders of the GOP-dominated Legislature have avoided direct criticism of teachers or school district for the closings but said they don’t expect to take action on further boosting school funding until at least 2021.

Holcomb and GOP legislative leaders touted a plan approved earlier this year as making strides toward improving teacher pay. But they faced criticism for not directing some of the state’s $2 billion in cash reserves toward schools.

The Republican governor said he was waiting for a teacher pay commission he appointed in February to make recommendations on increasing salaries by the end of 2020.

Education advocacy groups estimated this year a 9% funding increase was needed to boost average teacher pay to the midpoint of Indiana’s neighboring states. Republican state schools Superintendent Jennifer McCormick has cited a study showing Indiana as the state with the lowest teacher salary increases since 2002.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. 

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