Rep. Edward Clere

Rep. Edward Clere sits in on the hearing of House Bill 1016, which he authored. 

SOUTHERN INDIANA — One of the most hot-button statewide issues in Indiana in recent years has been the political battle to secure more funding for public education.

Forbes published an article April 2 that quantified and ranked average teacher salary increases by state between 2002 and 2017. Alaska and Oregon led the way, with salary increases of $27,688 and $27,511, respectively. The average of all 50 states was roughly $16,670. Indiana, however, had a recorded increase of just $6,904 — lowest in the country.

To rectify this issue, lawmakers worked to free up more money for school corporations in House Enrolled Act 1001. In an earlier interview with the News and Tribune, Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, described the contents of the legislation.

“We were able to provide 2.5 percent increases on the budgets,” Clere said. “We’re taking $150 million of the state reserves and using that to pay down teacher pension obligations, which will free up money for local schools. That’ll reduce the money school corporations are required to contribute for pensions. That will save them $70 million a year statewide, and free it up for other uses, including salaries.”

Along with the overall increases in the bi-annual budget, other funding sources were also expanded. These include money for English language learning programs as well as teacher appreciation grants.

“That’s for teachers in their first years of service, and it’s based on merit,” said Joy Lohmeyer, president of the New Albany Floyd County Education Association. “The last several years, they’ve placed about $30 million in the budget. They’ve increased that by about $15 million.”

According to Sen. Ron Grooms, R-Jeffersonville, state legislators have made funds available, but it’s up to the school districts themselves to allocate them toward teacher salaries.

“Teacher salaries are up to school boards,” Grooms said. “We do not legislate teacher salaries. The debate with that should be with school boards. We have provided ample funds. We provide money for teacher appreciation grants. We spend money for high performance. We provide many ways for teacher s to get rewarded for the work they do.”

Lohmeyer acknowledged that it was the highest budget increase seen in the state in over a decade, but the process of getting that money to teachers is more complicated than it seems. Multiple factors affect the amount of money that is available for school corporations. Enrollment numbers, as well as the complexity index, which focuses on things like students who are in foster care or families who receive SNAP benefits, impact each district’s funding differently, which makes the bargaining process difficult.

“In order to attract educators and to keep people in the field, we can’t do that by offering one-time money in a bi-annual budget,” Lohmeyer said. “What we have to have is a tax revenue source that is stable and dependable and increases so that we can put an increase on base salaries. When somebody is coming into a field, they look at salary ranges and how those look as they move into the future. Right now, people look at teacher salaries and they question whether they can support their families 10 or 15 years into the future.”

Evidence for this, Lohmeyer added, was some of the reasons local teachers gave for not being able to travel with her to Indianapolis during the legislative session. Though several were able to make the trip, others had to stay behind to work their second jobs.

“What they did in the session was positive,” Lohmeyer said. “It’s more than they’ve been doing, but it doesn’t fix why we’re so behind to begin with. [Lawmakers] have to be willing to come back to the budget in two years and really have done some planning and thinking on how to keep quality educators. We’re a resource. We’re like a public infrastructure. But people are too concerned about raising taxes to support these public infrastructures. In the end, we need the legislators to look for a longer-term solution that will allow us to put a percentage-based increase on salaries.

“People don’t expect to be rich in this field, but they do want to have a normal middle-class existence where they don’t need second jobs.”