Lawmakers want to pay teachers more, but struggle over how to do it

Keywords
focus-hipsjamesrussell-40-bp-450.jpg

Democrats and Republicans agree—teachers need higher pay.

holcomb-eric-mug.jpg Holcomb

But there is little to no agreement about how much higher or how to get dollars directly to teachers, so the issue is shaping up to be one of the major education debates in the Indiana General Assembly this year.

Gov. Eric Holcomb’s proposed two-year, $33.8 billion budget calls for an additional 2 percent in K-12 funding per year. And at his State of the State speech on Jan. 15, Holcomb said the state will pay off some teacher pension liability that will free up $70 million in each of the next two years for schools.

“I believe local school districts should allocate 100 percent of the $140 million to increasing teacher paychecks,” Holcomb said.

House Speaker Brian Bosma has suggested lawmakers could increase the base amount of funding going to schools even more. “We hope to find additional funding," he said.

meredith-teresa-mug.jpg Meredith

The Indiana State Teachers Association—the state’s largest teachers union—wants to see a lot more funding, but officials couldn’t specify how much.

“The governor’s budget was a beginning place, but that’s not enough,” ISTA President Teresa Meredith said. “It’s going to have to be significant so every teacher in the state sees some kind of increase in their take-home pay.”

Even if stakeholders agreed on an amount, there’s no consensus about how to guarantee that extra funding for K-12 education would result in higher paychecks for teachers. Republican legislators argue it’s up to the local districts to use the money to increase salaries, while education advocates say that’s a risky strategy.

“Everybody wants teachers to make more, but nobody wants to take responsibility for making it happen,” Meredith said.

focus-education-bar-vertical.pngThe issue has become a top priority for lawmakers and Holcomb, as the state continues to suffer from a teacher shortage. Low pay is believed to be a major reason; the state ranks 35th in the country for average teacher salaries, according to data from the National Education Association.

“People are jumping ship,” said Democratic Rep. Tonya Pfaff, a teacher from Terre Haute who serves on the House Education Committee. “We just can’t find qualified teachers because of the shortage.”

Not that teachers in other states are rolling in money. Teachers’ nationwide salary levels are seen as a factor in declining enrollment in colleges of education, meaning fewer students are studying to become teachers. A study from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education found the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in education dropped 15 percent from 2006 to 2015.

And even many of those who do receive education degrees aren’t staying in the profession for long. The same study found that fewer than half the students who said they planned to teach were still in classrooms four years after graduating.

“Teaching is a calling,” Pfaff said. “We know going in we’re not going to make a whole lot of money, but there’s no reason that anyone coming into this profession should have to work two or three jobs to do something they love.”

More pay, but how?

A bill authored by Republican Reps. Dale DeVon from Granger and Todd Huston from Fishers would encourage school corporations to spend 85 percent of their state funding on instruction-related costs, including teacher salaries, and only 15 percent on operational costs, including administration, transportation and food services.

Essentially, the bill recommends school districts re-evaluate spending priorities and shift existing funding resources, which some education leaders argue would not be easy.

“We do the best we can with our allocated amount from the state as it is,” Pfaff said. “From being in the classroom for 25 years, I can’t see how we can redistribute the same money in a better, more efficient way.”

Republican members of the House Education Committee say some schools are already exceeding the bill’s standard—the statewide average is 83 percent—but others are spending only about 60 percent of their budgets in the classroom.

Dennis Costerison, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials, told the House committee a survey of superintendents found 40 percent of school districts spend 15 percent or less on operations, while 60 percent spend more.

DeVon said if schools redistributed 5 percent of funding from operations to the classroom, they would have $350 million more for teacher pay. Even if schools redistributed just 1 percent, DeVon said, that would mean an extra $70 million directed to classrooms.

House Education Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said schools could trim transportation costs by partnering with nearby districts that are likely overlapping paths, anyway, or districts with fewer than 500 students could combine administrative services.

Behning Behning

“I think there’s a lot of places we really could drive some efficiency,” Behning said.

But the bill would not require schools to reallocate savings into teacher salaries, which is a sticking point for some Democratic lawmakers and education leaders. And in a district that is already hitting the 85 percent threshold, there might be no extra money for teachers.

“So, there is no real correlation between this bill and teacher pay?” Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, asked at a recent House Education Committee meeting.

“But that’s the bottom line—to encourage more funding into the classroom than it would be in operations,” DeVon replied.

So far, the bill’s authors and other Republican education leaders aren’t interested in asserting more control over local school districts. For example, setting a minimum salary requirement doesn’t seem like an idea that will go far.

“If we put a minimum salary in place, it makes it very difficult for those local decisions,” Behning said. “I don’t think we want to be a state-level school board.”

And GOP leaders have stressed that the 85 percent mark is not a requirement.

“If you’re not at 85 percent, it’s not a penalty,” Huston said.

But a school that did not meet the 85 percent threshold would be required to publicly discuss the fact at the next school board meeting and publish a notice on the district’s website indicating that it did not meet the standard. Plus, the school would have to explain its spending decisions to the state.

Not just more pay

focus-education-bar-horizontal.pngEducation advocates say higher pay would help the teacher-shortage problem, but not solve it alone.

“It really needs to be a comprehensive look forward: How do we increase pay now and how do we keep doing that so that teachers stay and that teachers begin to see it as a profession?” Meredith said.

House Republicans have two other bills designed to address pay and professionalism long term. House Bill 1008, authored by Behning and former teacher Sheila Klinker, D-Lafayette, would create what’s being called “career ladders.”

The proposal would allow teachers to assume leadership roles and earn higher pay without going into administrative positions. The bill would appropriate $5 million to provide up to 30 school districts with three-year grants for initiatives that outline sustainable and competitive pay systems, encourage mentoring, and fund professional-development training.

“If you’re really great at teaching, maybe you’d be better off staying in the classroom or staying in direct student services, rather than being an administrator,” Behning said.

DeVon has introduced House Bill 1009, which would create a teacher residency pilot program to be overseen by the Indiana Commission for Higher Education.

That program would allow school districts to partner with colleges and universities to give students an opportunity to work for a full school year in a classroom. The bill would appropriate $1 million to provide a stipend for the student and for the teacher whose classroom the student works in.

Behning said most education-college students participate in some sort of student teaching program, but it’s often during the second semester—after the teacher has established a classroom culture and relationships with the kids. By starting at the beginning of the school year, he said, student teachers could have a better understanding of what to expect.

Meredith said the career-development bills could be helpful, because they put an emphasis on mentoring and training.

“We know that pay is really important and I would say behind that is professional support,” Meredith said.

All three of the education bills passed the committee and are headed to the Ways and Means Committee, which considers all bills with a financial impact. But GOP leaders have stressed the bills are still in their beginning stages, and teacher pay will likely continue into future budget debates.

“We know it’s not going to be easy,” Behning said. “But we know it’s an issue that definitely deserves a lot of attention.”•

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Editor's note: IBJ is now using a new comment system. Your Disqus account will no longer work on the IBJ site. Instead, you can leave a comment on stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Past comments are not currently showing up on stories, but they will be added in the coming weeks. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.