SCOTTSBURG — A panel presented by a local Democratic Party featured a discussion about educational issues in Indiana, including topics such as the ongoing teacher shortage, school funding and the debate related to curriculum in schools.
The Ninth District Democratic Party’s Educational Council presented a “Forum on the State of Education” Thursday in Scottsburg. Erica Lawrence, co-chair of the party’s educational council, was the moderator of the panel discussion, which featured a local teacher, a retired superintendent and a state legislator.
Samantha Pierce, a Jeffersonville teacher, was among the speakers at Thursday’s event. She is a representative with the Indiana State Teachers Association and a teacher at Parkview Middle School.
She said there “are lots of positive things happening in schools,” but at Thursday’s forum, she noted challenges such as recovering from the pandemic, including effects on both students and teachers.
State Sen. Shelli Yoder, D-Bloomington, said Indiana ranks 17th in the country for education, citing a report from the Indiana Youth Institute.
“We are doing a lot of things right in our schools and in our communities,” Yoder said. “We should be celebrating that. Yes, we can make it stronger and better, and yes, we need to be lifting up the profession and finding more young teachers who want to get into the classroom and encouraging people to get into the teaching profession, because in Indiana, we have good outcomes when it comes to education.”
Mike Jones, a retired superintendent of Switzerland County School Corp., said he is concerned about the “number of classrooms we have where we don’t have teachers.”
“Right now in Indiana, we have 3,127 postings for teachers, and you can go in almost any district and you’re going to find classrooms that don’t have certified teachers and even difficulty finding substitutes to work in those classrooms,” he said.
Pierce also noted the issue of teachers become disenchanted with the profession. She works with several teachers within their first five years of teaching, and some are considering leaving the profession, she said.
“It’s not what they thought it would be, and that’s disheartening to see them come in and this is the career they’ve always wanted, and now they’re saying, what else can I do — this isn’t for me,” she said.
She feels that teachers, including many of the newer teachers, “need as much mental health support as what our students do,” Pierce said.
Jones feels that “letting teachers teach” and emphasizing less on assessments and testing would help attract more teachers in Indiana. He also wants to see more mentorship programs for teachers.
“Give teachers the resources they need to teach and let them do their jobs,” he said.
Yoder said that although there have been recent increases of teacher pay in Indiana, she feels the state still needs to go further to helps teachers earn a living wage.
After Thursday’s forum, the News and Tribune also reached out to Republican lawmakers in Southern Indiana for their thoughts on educational issues in the state. State Rep. Karen Engleman, R-Georgetown, noted that a couple of years ago, the legislature passed a bill that provides funding for people who study to become a teacher “as long as they stay in Indiana and teach for at least five years.”
She also discussed the issue of teacher pay and discussed the recent increase of starting salary for Indiana teachers, which is stipulated in the state budget.
“I think that there’s just a shortage of everything — nurses, teachers, every profession, and we are still trying to work on the pay,” Engleman said. “We actually said that an incoming teacher has to make $40,000, and we also specified the percentage of money that has to go to the classroom, because we catch a lot of the complaints for the fact that they don’t have enough money.”
Engleman said “if you don’t have teachers, you don’t have anything.”
“We’re not going to have any beginning teachers if you don’t start them at a high enough salary,” she said.
Pierce said that although Greater Clark County Schools, the district where she teaches, recently gave teachers a “good increase,” she feels that teachers are still behind “in purchase power” due to inflation.
Jones said with the $40,000 starting salary for teachers in Indiana “it’s good to see that we are making some strides there, but we still have a long way to go to reward the profession where it should be.”
Much of the discussion at Thursday’s forum included criticism of the state’s voucher program. Yoder emphasized that most students in Indiana attend traditional public schools, and she expressed concerns about the public funding of charter schools and vouchers for private schools, which has expanded over the years under the state’s Republican-led legislature.
“Over 90% of Hoosier children are educated in traditional public schools,” she said. “And that’s just data. That’s where our families are sending our next generation of leaders to — to public schools.”
Jones said he wants to see elected officials support traditional public education, and he is concerned about a national movement to “privatize” public education. He said he is concerned about voucher programs taking “a huge amount of money away” from traditional public schools.
Engleman said she supports the funding of vouchers and charter schools in Indiana.
“We have some very good charter schools in my district, and I think they’re very successful,” she said. “Not every child, I don’t think, can necessarily go through the public school system and succeed, so I think there’s a place for all different kinds of education.”
Yoder said that over the years, the “definition of need and the cap on families that qualify continue to move” in regard to the state’s voucher program, and she is concerned that the expansion of families now eligible are “far from a definition from families in need.”
“So we keep moving that amount up…we created the voucher system back in 2011, and we said, it’s going to just serve those families that can’t afford it, but we’ve moved the goalpost almost every budget cycle,” she said.
The speakers also focused on the national focus on curriculum and the conservative opposition to critical race theory. The panelists said they are concerned about the legislation that has been considered in Indiana and pushed in states across the country.
House Bill 1134, a bill that would have banned teaching certain “divisive concepts” in classrooms and increased parental oversight of curriculum, was among those considered in Indiana this legislative session. The bill was amended multiple times in the Indiana House and Senate, and it ultimately failed to move forward in the Senate.
Yoder said there are “important, critical conversations” that happen in the classroom, and teachers play an “important role in educating and meeting people where they are and accomplishing learning objectives in the classroom.”
“Much of this came out of a country that witnessed the murder of a Black man in Minnesota in the hands of a police officer, and it woke up White America,” she said. “We saw it, we’ve been hearing it, but we didn’t do enough. This awakening created an opportunity and a need to talk about theses issues in the classroom. We’ve probably been talking about these issues in the classroom.”
“When it comes to addressing that we enslaved people in this country, to talk about the native people living here when we created our country — how are teachers going to have these conversations in the classroom that are about history, that are about social studies, that are about current events,” she said.
She said she is worried these type of bills “try to silence” these conversations and “erase some of the uncomfortable parts of our history.”
Yoder said she is seeing misinformation that is “spreading distrust” of teachers and resulting in “divisive” legislation. She said the “vitriol” is discouraging for teachers.
“It stems from a lack of trust that we’re hearing, and it’s gotten to a fever pitch in our country, and we’re feeling it in Southern Indiana,” she said.
Engleman said she believes in “parental rights” and “curriculum transparency,” and she voted for House Bill 1134.
“We did do a lot of amending to the bill because it was pretty restrictive to begin with,” she said. “I think we helped the teachers a lot. We aren’t trying to hurt them, but with the testimony that came in on 1134, there are some things being taught that parents are very upset about.”
She said many parents felt “they had no voice” in decisions at school board meetings.
“We really have to make sure parents have some say in the education of their children but without making it so hard on the teachers, and that’s what we tried with 1134,” Engleman said. “I think some more work needs to be done on it, but it was a starting place.”
Lawrence, the moderator for the event, said it seems “we have been fixated on CRT, and that’s been the chant lately in Hoosier schools and American schools.” She worries the debate is overshadowing issues such as racial disparities in schools in academic performance and disciplinary outcomes.
“I also want to make sure as educators…we’re not missing the real messages, that the noise isn’t drowning out the real message,” Lawrence said. “As we’re thinking about the students who are sitting in our seats now, students of color who are sitting in our seats today — their achievement does not look the same as their peers.”
“What will Indiana schools do to close that gap, not just with academic outcomes, but also disciplinary outcomes?” she said.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including mental health issues, were also discussed at Thursday’s meeting. Pierce said students’ social skills have been affected by the pandemic, and many have experienced learning loss.
According to Yoder, mental health concerns, including “managing anxiety and stress for our young people,” are among the issues she hears about from constituents.