BOHANON & CUROTT: Our public education system puts teachers in tough spot

Economic Analysis: Cecil Bohanon & Nick CurottLast week, thousands of Indiana K-12 teachers took personal days and arrived at the Statehouse to lodge their grievances. The three areas of concern were: 1) That K-12 teacher pay is inadequate; 2) That teachers be held harmless for recent declines in state-mandated student test scores, because the evaluation method changed; 3) That the private externship mandate for teacher continuing-education requirements be eliminated.

It seems to us that much of this conflict is the result of local districts running schools that the state pays for. As the saying goes, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” Predictably, the state is calling the tune when it comes to public education in Indiana.

A little history is in order. The Indiana Constitution mandates the General Assembly “provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of Common Schools.” However, the task of administering this system has always been carried out by local school districts. At one time, local property taxes were a major source of local school funding. Over time, efforts to equalize funding across districts led to an increase in state funding. The property tax reforms of 2009 completed this process.

The state of Indiana now pays for 100% of local schools’ operations. Local property taxes still fund school building and transportation costs, and a district can ask property owners, via referendum, to supplement school operational spending. But in effect, K-12 schools are operated by local school corporations and paid for by the state.

The three issues central to the recent teacher march on Indianapolis are, in part, a result of this inherent tension. Without going into the debate of whether Indiana K-12 teachers are properly compensated, where should teachers go to request pay increases? Local school districts set pay. But when operating funds come from the state, local authorities can legitimately argue that they are not in a position to raise salaries.

On the second count, school performance metrics are always contentious—even more so when a one-size-fits-all evaluation is imposed. But again, this is a natural by-product of a state-financed system. Those who pay the bills set the tests. Finally, it’s no surprise that legislators feel empowered and even obligated to direct teacher continuing education when the Legislature pays the bills.

There’s no magic bullet or answer. Just an observation as to the consequences of the separation of administration and finance at K-12 schools.•


Bohanon and Curott are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to

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One thought on “BOHANON & CUROTT: Our public education system puts teachers in tough spot

  1. This article makes a critical point: the State provides the lion share of school funds and sets the rules. Thus, it must bear responsibility for teacher pay. The super-majority sidesteps this and asserts that districts, many of which have limited property tax revenue, are at fault.At the same time the legislature acts as if it has detailed knowledge of teacher training and of testing. It does not. So it buys into the latest idea like teaching teachers how to be entrepreneurs.Meanwhile, the super-majority defers to Betsy DeVos on federal mandates. It is time to get serious about education. We do know how to provide funds to schools in need. Let’s do it. Ed DeLaney, House District 86

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