Indiana’s legislators are considering a number of education reform bills that would dramatically change the practice of Hoosier education. They’re measures Governor Mitch Daniels says puts students first, but that educators worry would dismantle public schools. And some teachers report that as they work to make their concerns heard, the governor’s efforts to quiet them are becoming more and more aggressive.
Among the pieces of legislation lawmakers are considering are bills that would significantly reduce educators’ right to collective bargaining, could reallocate public school funds to charter schools, or would give scholarship incentives to students who opt to graduate from high school a year early. It’s legislation Governor Daniels said would create more accountability and reward the best teachers by paying them more but that members of the Indiana State Teachers Association said could negatively influence students’ educations.
That’s Rochester High School teacher Alex Lute. Lute said teachers are working to discuss these issues with their legislators but are struggling to engage them in dialogue.
“Getting new educators in will be more and more difficult. I think there will be a real shortage of teachers and we talk about things that directly affect us which in turn are things that directly affect students. We’re talking about classroom conditions—too hot too cold,” Lute said.
That’s why Lute said he and thousands of other teachers attended a rally at the Statehouse earlier this month.
But Daniels said he thinks their antics backfired.
“A number of the new legislators were taken aback by shouting, cursing, trash left in the hall,” Daniels said.
But teachers said they were pushed to raise their voices only when the governor raised his. Betty Martens, a middle school teacher in the Rochester schools, said she was surprised when the governor left a radio interview to cross the street to address her where she stood with a group of teachers in a silent picket holding a sign that read “Mitch, why do you hate teachers?”.
“He was especially disturbed, apparently by my sign and he approached me directly, pointed his finger right at my sign which I was holding right in front of me and said that is insulting, insulting, I have done nothing but praise teachers in every speech I’ve ever given. I could tell he was angry. I felt, at the time, I was surprised he had that tone because of his public official status,” Martens said.
The governor doesn’t remember the incident in quite the same way.
“Somebody had a sign, and I honestly think it was a woman, not a guy, that said something like I hate teachers. Well that’s a pretty false and insulting thing to say and I asked her ‘why would you make such a sign’ there is not a thing on the record that suggests anything like that. But you know it was about as civil a conversation as you can have,” Daniels said.
Alex Lute was there too.
“I was mortified to be standing next to him. I couldn’t believe, number one a grown man, number two the Governor of the State of Indiana would speak to a teacher, a professional in that tone,” Lute said.
Lute says the governor took issue with his sign, too.
“I was amazed when he walked up and physically put his hands on me. I thought that was unprofessional and uncalled for. I did not move toward him, I made no aggressive gestures toward him. In fact I was holding a sign with both hands and when he put his hands on my chest I was dumbfounded. He put his hands open and kind of to make a point and I don’t want to say thumped, that’s too hard of a word…when he did that it literally took the words out of my mouth and I had no response because I couldn’t believe number one that he got that close, number two that he would make physical contact,” Lute said.
The governor’s response?
“Well, maybe he’s not telling you the truth.”
Daniels also denies accounts of an incident at the Statehouse on January 25th between him and teachers from northern Indiana.
Russiaville teacher Jet Sodheimer, who says she voted for Daniels, says she was standing “shoulder to shoulder” with the governor that day when, according to Sodheimer, a student from Taylor High School approached the governor to talk about the legislation that would award scholarships to students graduating high school early.
“He had a newspaper and he rolled it up and he pointed it at her nose and he came right at her and he said, ‘Don’t you want to help to poor students? You know you’re taking away from the poor students,’” Sodheimer said.
Kokomo High School teacher Karen Foust says she was standing a little farther back, but can corroborate Sodhiemer’s story as can Jill Newby, another teacher who says she witnessed the events at the Statehouse that day.
“Yes, absolutely Jet’s account was accurate. He was aggressive toward teachers,” Newby said.
The Governor said he believes other witnesses would have different accounts of his recent interactions with teachers. Even if his response was less than calm, Daniels said he’s allowed to stand firm on his position.
“I don’t think it’s out of line in an exchange like that to argue back,” Daniels said.
More than 30 education-related bills are waiting for legislative action.