Indiana Governor takes steps to fix teacher pay problem, still a long way to go

NOW: Indiana Governor takes steps to fix teacher pay problem, still a long way to go

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - In December, Governor Eric Holcomb's appointed Teacher Compensation Commission released 37 recommendations to fix a problem they say has been decades in the making.

We are taking a look at those recommendations and if they will even work.

On Tuesday, we met a superintendent, teacher, and commission chair who say that teacher pay and recruitment have been a severe issue for the last decade in Indiana.

When comparing teacher pay in the U.S., we went from 24th in our nation to 36th. In just the midwest, we were top 3 and now we’re number 12.

The Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission originally appointed in early 2019 again provided these 37 recommendations to help fix that problem. It may seem like a lot but that's why we’re here to explain it all.

"Our hands have been tied by the laws, you know, even the administration can't just bypass the laws," Tina Green, a 7th-grade teacher at Wa-Nee Community Schools said.

"We need to do a far better job of whatever money that we find goes to the school systems that are educating over 90% of kids. And that's not the case right now with our current legislative body," Scot Croner, a Superintendent at Wa-Nee Community Schools said.

The Teacher Compensation Commission was issued to find out two things: to determine what competitive teacher pay is and provide recommendations to achieve it.

"We're about $10,000 lower per teacher per year than the target of $60,000 per teacher per year," Mike Smith, Commission Chair said.

They determined Indiana was far behind surrounding states when it comes to competitive teacher pay. A declining trend, that started in the early 2000s. And the 37 recommendations at both the local and state level are set to fix the problem.

"This is not a wish list. This is a carefully thought out considered list of actionable information," Smith said. "We actually have highlighted that five of our recommendations, five out of 37 would cover about half of the shortfall."

The first - would require school corporations to participate in the Indiana aggregate pharmacy procurement plan which could save the state $25 million a year.

"Nobody's trying to deny one, one pharmaceutical product or another but acquire them all through a statewide purchasing program," Smith said.

The second, which is a little more controversial, would limit working spouses' participation in district health care plans but will save the state $50 million a year.

"Now, we do not want to cause any person in our state to be without health benefits. We're just saying if you've got access to health benefits outside of the school corporation, you shouldn't have to enroll or you have that access only for the spouse, not for children, not for dependents," he said.

The third - increasing operating referenda at the local level which could save the state $80 million dollars but opponents say they don’t want to pay more, that’s the state's job.

"If we want to own the responsibility of responsibility for providing education locally, we may have to fund more of it. And we've had these property tax caps that have caused local sources of revenue to be somewhat frozen," he said.

“That allows us to do is to not have to siphon money away from teacher salaries to pay for lights to pay for buses to pay for, you know, support personnel," Croner said.

The fourth - cutting out Section 529, a tax provision allowing families to save money for their childrens college education.

"If we just matched what the rest of the country was doing, saying we're gonna give you the tax deferral, but we're not going to give you the credit that would generate another $50 million," Smith said.

The 37 recommendations, making some waves in Indiana communities.

"So we've had mixed feedback, there is a there's a sentiment among policy leaders that would say, we don't want to fund k-12, with additional revenues until we see outcomes improved. There are others who would say the state ought to take care of all these problems," he said. "The General Assembly has just started its session. And things are working their way through, there's lots of dialogue going on.”

But even though the recommendations are out there, they are just recommendations for now, and many worry if anything will even get done.

“I hope that they will see the worth in teachers, and invest in young people. But if I go by history, I don't have a great outlook. I hope it's better," Green said.

"Well it’s not happening this year, and that's really unfortunate," Croner said.

"To bring our compensation to the targeted level will require additional funding of school teacher compensation of $600 million a year. That's a big number. That's a very fancy number. And it cannot all be done in a single bite," Smith said.

And that $600 million will accrue annually with inflation until there is a systemic change to the way education is funded in Indiana.

"What we're trying to do is get our state-level set again, let's get back to a competitive position. And then we have to keep it that way. We have to not let that happen in the future decades, what has happened in the past two decades," Smith said. "Many, many folks have asked me, aren't you disappointed that the governor and the general assembly have not provided a solution to this and I say no, I'm neither surprised, nor am I disappointed. It is a complex issue. It's going to involve having everybody come to the table, our legislature, our governor and our state education officers and our local school officials.”

However, Smith said something is already being done, with the fifth recommendation "covering most of the shortfall" - using surplus funds to reduce pension liability.

"His target would be to use 400 million, we wanted him to use 250 million incrementally would free up 50 million a year that could go into classroom teacher pay. He's asked the general assembly to consider using 400 million, which would give us even more capacity for teacher pay. So we're, we're delighted by that. That's the first one out of five," he said.

And the budget has increased as well.

"Not only are we going to maintain during tough economic times we're going to increase by 2% and I thought that was a good signal," Croner said.

But there is still a long way to real change.

"Politics aside, you know, can we just look at education through the lens of what is truly working what's truly best for kids," he said.

"Understanding and recognizing their importance means that you match that with the pay that you get them. I just don't know of a more important job than making a difference in the lives of young people," Green said.

"It's not about paying teachers about ensuring that we have a bright future for our kids. And if we don't have the most highly skilled teachers in front of our students on a daily basis. The future is not going to look real bright for our kids," Croner said.

In the end, raising teacher pay will hopefully make the job more desirable and more qualified teachers could come through the woodworks.

But why these recommendations, why not let's say a tax on cigarettes?

Well, Smith wanted to make it clear that they delivered recommendations that are actionable at the end of the day. And they avoided going down any real emotional or sensitive pathways like charging more for cigarettes or speeding tickets in school zones. 

Any questions or concerns? Reach out to us! Learningcurve@abc57.com.

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