UPDATE: New Senate budget plan gives slight school funding boost

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A new state budget plan would send some more money to Indiana schools but far less than what advocacy groups have said is needed for teacher pay raises.

The Republican-sponsored proposal endorsed Thursday by the Senate Appropriations Committee would boost base school funding by 2.7% in the first year and 2.2% in the second year of the new two-year state budget.

The full Senate is to vote on the budget plan next week, with the House and Senate having until late April to reach a budget agreement.

That's slightly more than what Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb proposed and the hike of just over 2% each of the next two years that was included in the House budget plan approved in February. Holcomb and GOP legislative leaders have touted the importance of addressing Indiana's lagging teacher salaries , but education advocacy groups estimate a 9% funding increase is needed to boost average teacher pay to the midpoint of Indiana's neighboring states.

Besides the $535 million in additional base school funding over the next two years, the Senate plan also includes $30 million more to school districts for one-time bonuses to teachers and aims to free up district money by paying off $150 million in future teacher pension obligations.

Neither the House nor Senate budget plans require any of the increased funding go toward teacher pay, which Senate Appropriations Chairman Ryan Mishler of Bremen said respects the authority of local school boards to make spending decisions.

"I think we're putting quite a bit out there to give them flexibility to meet those needs," Mishler said.

Unrest over teacher pay has roiled legislatures across the country since walkouts began in West Virginia in early 2018. In Kentucky, recurring "sickouts" for teacher protests forced schools to cancel classes earlier this year, and a six-day teacher strike in Los Angeles ended with a 6 percent pay hike and commitment to smaller classes.

A February report from the groups Stand for Children and Teach Plus estimated $658 million is needed for Indiana's teacher pay to reach the midpoint of neighboring states — a steep price tag that stems from average Indiana teacher salaries dropping 15 percent since 2000 when adjusted for inflation. 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.

Several hundred teachers attended a Saturday rally at the Indiana Statehouse last month calling for action on teacher pay, but the state's largest teachers union had a muted initial response to the Republican plan that's going to the full Senate for consideration.

"It is an increase in the commitment to public education and for that we do recognize your efforts," Indiana State Teachers Association lobbyist Gail Zeheralis told the committee. "But we definitely want to continue this discussion."

Senate committee Republicans rejected a proposal from Democrats aimed at guaranteeing a minimum 5% raise for teachers, school counselors and social workers. Democrats said the $315 million over two years needed for their plan would come from reducing state funding of vouchers for students attending private schools, eliminating proposed increases for charter schools, using the teacher bonus money and stretching out state payments toward a teacher pension fund.

Democrats argue that the Republican budget plan isn't adequate for boosting teacher pay and wrongly relies on "public shaming" of underfunded school districts.

"If they're going to use a tool, let's use an effective tool that's going to make sure that those dollars go directly to teachers' bottom line, into their pockets," said Democratic Sen. Eddie Melton of Gary.

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