The two Democrats vying for a spot on the November general election ballot both feel steps must be taken to recruit and retain good teachers in Indiana.
Mary Kohen and Dale Nowlin are competing in the May 8 Democratic primary for Indiana House District 59, a seat currently held by Rep. Milo Smith, a six-term lawmaker from Columbus who is not seeking re-election. Five Republicans also are actively campaigning to replace Smith.
Nowlin, who has been a math teacher with the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. since 1985, is matched against Kohen, who describes herself as a community volunteer and activist.
Indiana has experienced teacher shortages, especially in courses tied to science, technology, engineering and math, commonly known as STEM, and special education.
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Nowlin, who teaches at Columbus North and is making his second try for the District 59 seat, suggested there are ways to improve the situation.
“If Indiana is serious about attracting and retaining high-quality teachers, we need legislators who respect teachers and value what they do,” Nowlin said. “We need beginning teacher salaries that are comparable to other fields requiring similar degrees and we need to provide reasonable opportunities for advancement.”
Kohen, who is making her first try for public office, said the issue starts with competitive pay and benefits. She pointed out that investments are made in the community to attract new businesses, and the same should be done for teachers.
“We need to work with our local school corporations to identify issues that contribute to the lack of STEM, special education and teachers in general,” she said.
A related educational issue is job training and workforce development.
Kohen said community colleges have been providing accredited training that is helping prepare students for good-paying, entry-level employment, which she noted is a great avenue to more usable certifications and degrees.
“C4 high school courses have also been great for exposing students to different pathways to career opportunities,” Kohen said.
Nowlin said job training and workforce development must be a coordinated effort among businesses and industries, in addition to local K-12 and local higher education.
“The state should look at where this is happening now and replicate it in other regions,” Nowlin said. “Strategic investment in workforce development is an investment in our future economy.”
Both Democratic candidates support redistricting reform, which the Indiana legislature was unable to accomplish during this year’s session.
Supporters of redistricting point to voter trends compared to the balance of power in the state legislature. Republican Donald Trump carried Indiana in the 2016 presidential election with 57 percent of the vote, to 38 percent for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. But the makeup of Indiana voting districts has resulted in Republicans having an even stronger hold, with a 70-30 majority in the state House and a 41-9 majority in the state Senate.
Senate Bill 326, which was authored by Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, would have established criteria for the 2021 redistricting process. It passed the full Senate 42-6 but died in committee after Smith, chairman of the House Elections and Apportionment Committee, refused to schedule a hearing. Smith also refused to schedule a hearing on a second proposal that would have created an independent redistricting committee.
Smith said he and others felt it would be best to wait until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a Wisconsin gerrymandering case before creating new redistricting criteria for Indiana.
Kohen said she supports changes in the drawing of voter districts “to end the practice of gerrymandering, which discourages fair, competitive elections.”
Nowlin said in a democracy, voters choose their representatives, while politicians draw districts to choose their voters through gerrymandering.
“Data shows that gerrymandering leads to lower voter turnout,” Nowlin said. “We should do all we can to encourage voter participation, including the establishment of an independent redistricting commission.”
Find out where they stand: