Education stock

Indiana educators are losing ground when it comes to teacher pay, and it's a major challenge in efforts to recruit new talent and address the teacher shortage, officials say.

But the problem is not unique to the Hoosier state.

Discontent with teacher pay and other issues has prompted teacher strikes or protests in other states, including West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona. They are protesting cuts in pay, benefits and school funding in a movement that has spread rapidly since starting in West Virginia earlier this year.

Some are wondering if those job actions will have an impact in Indiana.

"I think teachers are growing restless across the country and they just have kind of reached a boiling point," said Teresa Meredith, Indiana State Teachers Association president. "I don't know where Indiana is yet."

Still, Meredith sees "a growing unrest in our state among educators ... Members are calling almost every day or emailing almost every day," she said. They are asking, "Why aren't we marching?" or responding in other ways.

She hopes to get a better sense of that this weekend, when the Association conducts its Representative Assembly, where Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, will tell his state's story. In that state, low pay and a lack of raises touched off a nine-day teacher strike that pushed state officials to approve a 5-percent raise for teachers and all state public employees.

According to Meredith, "I know they [Indiana teachers] are restless, but I have to find the right path to lead them on," she said. "Hopefully, our Legislature will be more respectful and more open to talking with educators as we go forward."

Strikes are illegal in Indiana, and state law does provide penalties for unions and teachers that participate in a strike.

Average teacher salaries in Indiana have declined by more than 15 percent in the past 15 years after adjusting for inflation, according to an analysis by Vox, drawing on data from the National Education Association.

"This is worse than the nation as a whole, where teachers have had their pay cut by an average of 3 percent when we adjust for inflation," according to the Vox report.

Per-pupil funding

In addition, Indiana has one of the lowest per pupil funding levels in the country, according to the National Education Association. On average, Indiana schools receive $7,538 per student, lower than the four states where teachers have staged strikes or other large-scale protests.

According to the NEA's "Rankings of the States 2016 and Estimates of School Statistics 2017," average teacher pay in Indiana for 2016 was $50,715 and nationally, it was $58,353; in 2017, in Indiana, it was $50,554 and nationwide, $58,950.

In terms of average teacher starting salaries in 2016-17, nationwide it was $38,617 and in Indiana it was $35,241, according to NEA.

Terry McDaniel, Indiana State University associate professor of educational leadership, says issues associated with teacher pay are contributing to the state's teacher shortage. "Considering Indiana’s beginning salary is about $3,000 under the national average and the beginning salary of a teacher in the U.S. is far lower than most beginning college grad jobs, this does add to the shortage," he said.

Many districts, especially those losing enrollment, have seen little or no new money and have been forced to lay off teachers and offer one-time stipends rather than increase salaries, he said.

School general funds are now almost entirely funded by the state based on student enrollment, and state funding for schools has not kept up with inflation, he said. Contributing to the challenges are the state's elimination of pay scales and salaries based on performance-based pay.

'Attack on public education'

Kim Fidler, a UniServ director for the Indiana State Teachers Association, has bargained contracts for teachers, secretaries, and custodians in 35 different school corporations over the last 11 years, including Vigo. She blames politics for what is happening to teacher pay in Indiana. "Our elected Republican super-majority in Indiana, is quite frankly, killing public education," she said.

The reason for teacher pay losing ground since around 2009 [due to a $300 million cut that was never restored] is the result of budget cuts and dollars following the students, she said.

"While this may seem to make perfect sense that dollars follow the students, it is anything but common sense. It is a direct attack on public education," she said.

In addition, "We have to compete with low-performing charter schools and private schools that receive vouchers funded by tax dollars," she said. Indiana spent $153 million on the school voucher program for the 2017-2018 school year.

Between 2012-13 to 2016-17, the Vigo County School Corp. lost an estimated $2.2 million to private school vouchers, including $540,973 in 2015-16 and $559,288 in 2016-17, according to state data and information provided by the ISTA.

Public school funding is not keeping up with inflation, Fidler said. The Legislature "continues to vote for new voucher bills each session, to the detriment of our public schools," she said.

People do not become teachers to get rich, she said. It is not the money that attracts people to the teaching profession. However, as teachers marry, have a family, and grow older, money is, many times, the reason that they leave the teaching profession, Fidler said.

Problem acknowledged

The problem is also acknowledged by Jennifer McCormick, Republican state superintendent for public instruction.

"Over the past 20 years, we have seen educator salaries drop by 15 percent. Teachers deserve the best we can give them, and we know it is difficult when we cannot pay them a salary they deserve," she said. "As a department, we will continue to pursue any available funding from our legislators to assist districts in boosting teacher pay."

State Sen. Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute, said he favors "trying to leave as much bargaining room for teachers as possible. We've had the Legislature trying to restrict bargaining rights of teachers, and I've voted against that."

It should be left to local school boards and teachers, he said. "I would prefer at the state level we don't get into dictating teacher salaries; we have locally elected school boards. Let them divvy up the pot of money."

He said he is concerned about the teacher shortage, and "I'll continue to push for more funding for K-12 education."

But Ford also said, "In general, we've had stagnation in wages in a lot of industries around the country in the last eight to 10 years."

Fidler said she "applauds the teachers in other states who have finally said enough. I am not certain when teachers from Indiana will make that same decision. However, it really never has to come to that." She advocates a different approach.

Those concerned about what is happening in public education need to vote in upcoming elections "to end the privatization of public schools," Fidler said. Then "there would be no need for a walkout, a strike or any job action."

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at sue.loughlin@tribstar.com

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