Indiana debate over teacher pay boost remains unsettled

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Statehouse Republicans haven't come up with more than modest proposals toward boosting Indiana teacher pay even as they continue touting that step as a top goal for the new state budget.

Initial requests from Gov. Eric Holcomb seek about $210 million more in education funding for next school year, although a new report from education advocacy groups says $658 million is needed to boost average teacher pay to the midpoint of Indiana's neighboring states.

The steep price tag—which would amount to a 9 percent increase in state school funding—stems from average Indiana teacher salaries dropping 15 percent since 2000 when adjusted for inflation, according to the report from Stand for Children and Teach Plus.

Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children Indiana, said the state is facing a "crisis" that developed over many years leading to declines in new teachers entering the profession and struggles for schools in finding qualified teachers for vacancies.

"There's no question there's a significant gap that needs to be addressed," Ohlemiller said.

Holcomb has proposed roughly a 3 percent increase in school funding for each of the next two years and is creating a teacher pay commission to make recommendations for legislators to consider in 2021 on how best to boost salaries.

Leaders of the Republican-dominated Legislature say they are looking for additional school funding increases but haven't given specifics. House Republicans will release their budget proposal within the next couple of weeks, with the Senate then taking its turn before the deadline on a final agreement by late April.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said all steps to close the teacher pay gap can't "all be done in one fell swoop, but our goal has been to get more money to the most important professionals in our state for the future—and that's our teachers."

Bosma faulted the advocacy groups' report for not taking into consideration Indiana's lower cost of living, saying that such calculations put Indiana teacher pay in the top 10 states.

"I don't think it's a fair presentation to say that we want to be sure to have more than Illinois, because the Illinois cost of living and tax burden there for residents and teachers, especially, is significantly higher than here," he said.

But a Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis study released last year found that Indiana's average teacher salary of $50,881 ranked 31st among the states when adjusted for cost-of-living differences—behind Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio.

Democrats have suggested tapping into the state's $1.8 billion reserves to give additional funding to schools. Holcomb and Republicans argue maintaining that surplus protects the state's credit rating and attractiveness for business recruitment.

Rep. Greg Porter of Indianapolis, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said the governor's education funding plan is disappointing and not even helping schools keep up with inflation.

"Those, to me, are recession-type numbers," Porter said. "They are not even giving cost-of-living raises."

The pay issue comes amid teacher activism that has roiled legislatures in Kentucky, West Virginia and other states over the last year. Teachers in Oklahoma won an average $6,100 raise following a nine-day walkout last spring. Los Angeles teachers staged a six-day strike in January, securing a 6 percent raise and promises for smaller class sizes, and more nurses and counselors to benefit students.

Teacher strikes are illegal in Indiana, but teacher unions are trying to keep attention focused on the issue and say they are working with Holcomb and Republican legislative leaders to make progress.

The Indiana State Teachers Association, which has about 40,000 members among the state's some 70,000 teachers, is planning a Saturday rally at the Statehouse on March 9, union President Teresa Meredith said.

"I don't want to call them out of school yet, I don't know that's going to be needed," Meredith said. "I think it's good for the public, the community to come together and support public schools and rally for strong public school funding."

Stand for Children and Teach Plus are supporting other Republican-sponsored proposals, such as one creating a "career ladder" program in which teachers could receive extra pay for leading teams of teachers. Supporters say that will help keep experienced teachers in the classroom rather than having to leave for administrative positions to improve their salaries.

Ohlemiller, the Stand for Children director, said he doesn't think any school advocates believe the state's lagging teacher pay will be solved in a single two-year budget cycle.

"This has to be a goal, a priority over several years," he said. "But we have to have a true north in terms of where we're heading and a plan to elevate the profession overall."

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