Brandt Hershman: Teacher-pay debate raises many questions

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DEBATE QShould the Legislature set standards for teacher pay?

HershmanWith the Indiana General Assembly’s biennial budget session taking flight after the holidays, a siren song as regular as the blizzards of January is already tuning up—the call for increased education funding. What is different about this year’s melody is the background harmony coming from Gov. Eric Holcomb and key legislative leaders that a key component of education funding increases should be directed to teacher salaries.

It’s no surprise that public employee salaries are a hot topic during a scorching economy. Private-sector employers have the funds and the flexibility to respond to demand for workers and increasingly salaries much more quickly than the government. And recently released revenue projections suggest more than $400 million in additional funds will be available to state budget writers. But much of those funds are expected to be needed by the Department of Child Services to serve at risk youth.

For legislators, the challenges of teacher pay increases extend beyond the availability of funds. Even though school general fund dollars are provided by the state to schools, teacher salaries and benefits are negotiated by local school boards—and they vary widely. Other considerations will include whether teachers in hard-to-fill positions like science, technology, engineering and math should receive greater funding than easier-to-fill positions. Also, what is the right amount to pay teachers and how should they be measured and rewarded for performance? If salaries are to be compared to the private sector, then so should performance metrics.

Moreover, should salaries be evaluated by base pay, or should health care benefits and lifetime pensions factor into the equation? Should teachers be compensated according to class size, and how should the state manage the relationship with local school districts? Should teachers be required to receive the same health benefits as state employees, and if not, why not?

In finding dollars, we need to evaluate how many dollars being driven to the classroom and what strategies need to be examined to ensure dollars are not wasted on non-teaching costs. And when comparing Indiana’s teacher salaries, do we need to factor in Indiana’s historically low cost of living?

These and many other factors will feed the debate, and no doubt interest groups will try and influence public opinion.

The bottom line is that if we wish to attract top level talent to teaching, we have to pay reasonable salaries. But reasonable is going to be the subject of a lively debate.•

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Hershman previously served in the Indiana Senate. He currently serves of council in the federal practice group of Barnes and Thornburg LLP in Washington, D.C. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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