Indiana teachers union presses reticent state lawmakers to reopen budget in 2024 session

ISTA’s president said millions more are needed for the school funding formula, textbooks and teacher retention.

By: - November 30, 2023 6:30 am

Indiana State Teachers Association president Keith Gambill discusses the union’s 2024 legislative priorities during a news conference on Nov. 28, 2023. (Casey Smith/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Indiana’s largest teacher’s union is calling for better collective bargaining, increased pay for support staff and more say over curriculum in the upcoming legislative session.

Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA) President Keith Gambill said Tuesday that Hoosier educators are also seeking new social and emotional learning support for students.

“These priorities … reflect what educators need to create better learning environments for their students, and better working environments for all educators,” Gambill said during a news conference, where he released the union’s 2024 legislative priorities.

The General Assembly reconvenes Jan. 8. Although Republican legislative leaders have said they do not plan to reopen the state budget during the short session, ISTA’s latest agenda includes multiple funding requests that total at least $540 million. 

More money for traditional public education

ISTA will advocate for a $500 million increase to basic tuition support for traditional public schools in the 2025 fiscal year — the second year covered by Indiana’s current biennial budget. Gambill said that amounts to a boost of 7.98% compared to what schools are currently on track to receive.

Under current law, K-12 public schools are projected to see average per student funding increases of 1.7% next year.

“While we recognize the 2024 legislative session is not a budget year, we are calling on legislators to reopen the budget to fix several inadequacies that require immediate attention,” he said. “If we want Indiana to be a leader in the region or country, we’re going to have to do right by our schools.”

He emphasized, too, that the legislature needs to earmark more money in the second year of the biennium to “fully fund” the cost of textbooks and curricular materials. 

State lawmakers dedicated $160 million in the new state budget to eliminate textbook and curriculum fees, starting with the 2023-24 academic year. While the new law was championed by state officials, school districts are still on the hook to pay for those materials.

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The ISTA leader said the union is aware of “several” school districts that are “concerned” about their ability to pay for textbooks in the 2024-25 school year. Gambill said more data needs to be collected before ISTA can recommend an exact dollar for curricular fees.

“If schools are forced to either make changes in staffing or other programming in order to fully fund the textbooks, then we’re not getting the best for our students,” he said. “It shouldn’t be upon them — and not born on the backs of school employees — to make that happen.”

Gambill said while charter and voucher schools benefited from significant funding boosts in the 2023 session, traditional public schools still lack “appropriate” appropriations. 

“We have over 90% of all Hoosier families send their children to a traditional public school, and if you look at the way that that funding was distributed this past year, that was not equal, especially when you look at the amount that was increased for voucher schools,” he said.

ISTA is also continuing to lobby for professional pay benefits and support for parent educators, bus drivers, food service workers and other “vital support staff.” Gambill said Indiana also “must recognize the commitment of our retired teachers and public employees” by giving a 2% cost of living adjustment for Indiana’s retired educators. 

“We certainly know that the state has the surplus available,” he continued. But he said ISTA has not outlined a specific location in the budget for lawmakers to draw on the requested dollars.

Better support systems for students

To address ongoing gaps in social and emotional learning support for students, Gambill said the union is proposing a three-year pilot program focusing on student wellbeing. The ask comes with a $20 million annual price tag. 

The pilot seeks to reduce student-to-staff ratios by hiring additional guidance counselors, social workers and school psychologists. The initiative would span from elementary to high school and involve 30 school districts. Gambill said the goal is to address physical and mental health issues — and if successful — could later be applied statewide. 

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ISTA is further seeking to restore discipline as a mandatory discussion item, or under restored collective bargaining rights. Gambill said doing so would help teachers better address student disciplinary issues that have become more common since the pandemic.

In recent years, the Republican legislature has rolled back collective bargaining rights.

To improve student discipline, the union also called for statewide class size data to be gathered, and for a grant program to be created to hire additional teachers. Gambill said ISTA is also seeking to establish a task force to improve student behavior.

After a slew of so-called “culture war” issues in the 2023 session precipitated into new laws — like those concerning the use of pronouns in classrooms and the ability for Hoosiers to challenge books in school libraries — Gambill said it’s not fully clear how teachers have been affected.

“It’s a little bit different from school district to school district as to how they’re interpreting the law and in which ways they’re moving forward. We’re still learning from that,” he said. “But we also know that we have to continue to address the social-emotional welfare of our students, and we believe that in doing so, that will have an impact in other areas such as absenteeism and behavior within the classrooms.”

Gambill said educators are hoping “those types” of hot-button bills don’t return in 2024. 

“The challenge really has not been with our parents at large. The challenge has been those who have preconceived notions of what is actually occurring in the classrooms, oftentimes without having a student attending the class,” Gambill noted. “When you look at the school communities, and the engagement with parents in the classrooms, and when we’re speaking directly about the parents who have students attending the classes, those connections have been and remain very strong.”

Bargaining and teacher recruitment

More broadly, the teachers union is continuing to press for restored and expand collective bargaining rights, in addition to mandatory discussion.

Lawmakers stripped Hoosier educators of the right to collectively bargain over working conditions like class sizes and schedules under a 2011 law. The topics that teachers can currently bargain over during the fall bargaining window are salaries, wages and benefits, including pay increases.

Gambill said ISTA’s membership is calling on policymakers to allow teachers to negotiate working hours, influence and determine class size and caseloads, and provide input on textbooks, teaching methods and student support. 

Educators should also “have the freedom to teach accurate, age-appropriate lessons about America, from our greatest triumphs to our darkest moments,” according to ISTA’s legislative agenda.

Recruitment and retainment of educators of color will additionally require more state funding, Gambill said.

“Students should not have to look much further than their own classes to find mentors or materials with roots in their own community. Our public schools should reflect the cultural diversity and identity of the communities they serve,” he said. 

As part of that effort, ISTA wants to see more paraprofessionals become licensed teachers. Enhanced mentoring programs for educators of color and increasing funding for professional development “with a focus on Black, Indigenous and all educators of color” will also help, Gambill said. 

The union also hopes lawmakers will establish a statewide commission to address diversity in staffing and support pipelines to teach.

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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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