INDIANAPOLIS (WDRB) -- Some 15,000 teachers descended on Indiana's Capitol Tuesday, hoping to send a clear message that they're keeping closer tabs on lawmakers as the 2020 legislative session draws near.

"To the legislators in the statehouse today we say pencils down, time's up," Indiana State Teachers Association President Keith Gambill told a crowd of red-clad educators before they marched around the Capitol Tuesday.

The throng of educators chanted slogans like "red for ed," "rise up," "enough" and "we will vote you out" as speakers took to the Capitol steps during Tuesday's "Red for Ed Action Day" organized by ISTA.

Half of Indiana's school districts closed Tuesday for the event, allowing thousands of educators to cram the statehouse lawns and steps as lawmakers organized ahead of next year's legislative session.

Teachers took the opportunity to make sure legislators knew what they wanted from the 2020 General Assembly, primarily pay raises for teachers and school staff and overall funding boosts from the $410 million budget surplus at the close of fiscal year 2019.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has convened a task force to examine teacher compensation in Indiana ahead of the 2021 budget session, but Gambill and others say educators need to see action sooner than that.

Holcomb said in a statement that he remains "committed to finding long-term sustainable solutions to increase teacher compensation."

"That's why I created the Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission and signed our recent two-year budget that included historic levels of increased funding for K-12," he said. "As we continue to seek systemic improvements, it's essential we retain and attract great teachers to ensure Hoosier students receive the best education our state can offer."

ISTA says Indiana teachers lag their neighboring states in average pay. A National Education Association study shows that teachers in the state made an average salary of $50,937 last school year, less than the $53,434 average for Kentucky educators in 2018-19.

"Retaining teachers is an issue that must be addressed," Gambill said. "… This system is unsustainable. It is hurting our children."

Jeffersonville High School teacher Ericka Herd said the lagging salaries of Indiana teachers brought her to her breaking point.

"It's time for equality for teachers, and many of us multiple jobs," she said. "This is my 21st year teaching altogether in education, and I still have to work multiple jobs to pay my bills. Many of us have stopped and started further education because we can't continue to pay those bills that it costs for another degree."

Nearly 200 teachers from Greater Clark traveled via chartered bus to Indianapolis. The district was one of several in southern Indiana to close or hold "e-learning" days because so many teachers took personal days for Tuesday's rally.

Teachers are also pushing lawmakers to repeal a requirement passed in this year's legislative session that they complete 15-hour "externships" with local businesses as they renew their teaching licenses.

Justin Snelling, vice president of the Greater Clark Education Association, said the new requirement is insulting to educators who already spend the bulk of their time working with kids in classrooms and "countless hours" with them after school. Teachers "feel like we know what our kids need to know to enter the workforce," he said.

"I don't need to go do an externship somewhere and work 15 hours for free to become a better educator," Snelling said. "We're already putting in hours researching best practices, finding out ways to really provide quality instruction for our students."

Another item on their legislative wish list when lawmakers convene for the 2020 session is ensuring that the dismal ILEARN test results from the 2018-19 school year, in which 37 percent of students showed proficiency in reading and math, won't negatively impact schools, districts and teachers.

Holcolmb and legislative leaders have publicly backed such a measure. 

Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, says he's planning to file a bill that would hold schools and teachers harmless for the results of last school year's ILEARN results, a concept that Sen. Ron Grooms, R-Jeffersonville, echoed.

"I don't think the teachers should be held responsible for those test results," Grooms said in an interview with WDRB News. "That teacher has done the best they can do with what they have and what they know."

Whether lawmakers will heed teachers in the upcoming legislative session remains to be seen.

Lucas said teachers' salaries are determined by their districts, so educators should look there for more pay. He and other Republicans doubt the General Assembly will reopen the budget next year to provide higher pay for teachers, instead waiting until the 2021 session to revisit the issue. 

"It's good to see these protests here, but these things need to happen at the local level," he said in an interview with WDRB News.

But Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick said lawmakers need to shoulder their share of the financial burden to boost pay for educators across the state.

"It's easy to blame local superintendents for the funding issue, and that's simply a way to divert the real issue," she said during a press conference Tuesday. "You have to have money coming from the statehouse, but when you have half of your budget coming from the state for (kindergarten through 12th grade education), we have to have help from the state."

Democrats in the General Assembly have previously proposed a 5% pay increase for educators throughout Indiana.

Gambill and others say teachers will persist in their pursuit of relief from lawmakers in 2020.

"We're just getting started," Gambill said during Tuesday's rally. "… We will carry on until legislators do what's right for our students and for public education."

Lawmakers say educators made a mark with Tuesday's demonstration that affected half of Indiana's school districts. 

Of the announced crowd of 15,000 teachers and supporters who converged on Indiana's statehouse on Tuesday, an estimated 6,000 made it into the Capitol as lawmakers gathered to organize for the 2020 session.

"I knew it would be big, but this is big," Grooms said. "... I've been through demonstrations like this, and their voice is being heard."

If the 2020 session comes and goes without much action from the General Assembly, some who spoke to WDRB News say they're ready to test their political mettle.

Pam McCoy, a Greater Clark teacher, said this year's gubernatorial election in Kentucky that led to the ouster of Gov. Matt Bevin should be a signal of how much change educators can affect at the ballot box.

"Teachers stood up and fought for their rights and what they believe in, and so that's what we’re doing," she said.

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