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The Journal Gazette

  • Julie Hollingsworth

Friday, January 04, 2019 1:00 am

A test of leadership

Lawmakers have all the evidence they need to do right by public-school educators

Julie Hollingsworth

New Indiana Teacher Licenses

2010-11 school year 5,597
2011-12 5,712
2012-13 5,892
2013-14 3,847
2015-16 4,584
2016-17 5,047
2017-18 4,655

Source: Indiana Department of Education

By the numbers

Total Indiana budget +20.96 percent
Consumer Price Index +16.71 percent
K-12 tuition support +12.12 percent

Indiana finds itself burdened by two issues, a teacher shortage and low teacher pay.

Each feeds the other. How did we get here, and what can be done?

In 2011, the Republican-majority General Assembly with Mitch Daniels as governor passed a sweeping set of laws affecting K-12 education. New laws created the private school voucher program and expanded charter school opportunities. The rhetoric and talking points used to sell these programs echoed that being used across the country; much of it was focused on bad schools and bad teachers.

Legislators claimed that vouchers and charters were needed so students could escape failing “government schools,” presumably filled with incompetent teachers. The new laws also restricted collective bargaining by teachers' unions, required all teachers to be evaluated by student test scores and ended the traditional teacher salary schedules by which most teachers received increases each year. These changes attacked teachers professionally and personally, since their very livelihood was affected.

Legislators claimed collective bargaining changes were necessary so districts could dismiss low-performing teachers. Student test scores were deemed as necessary to identify both high- and low-performing teachers. Legislators also said teachers traditionally had been getting undeserved automatic raises each year and outlined a system for teachers to be paid more on merit or for performance, although the details were not yet clear.

I think it's fair to say that teachers were stunned, hurt and angry.

While some of these changes might seem sensible, the reality can be much different. Indiana, as required by federal law, tests students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school in both mathematics and language arts. But Indiana law required all teachers to be evaluated by student test scores. How would that work for a kindergarten teacher, an art teacher, a music teacher or a high school foreign language teacher? And how would such a system be fair and valid for all teachers?

The majority of research, in fact, shows that identifying teacher quality by using student test results is neither valid nor reliable. And do we as a society really value a system that puts a premium on test results? How many student outcomes – communication, work ethic, teamwork, time management and collaboration, to name a few – are ignored by testing?

When it comes to paying teachers for performance, can a system be designed and implemented that would identify and reward the best teachers? Indiana legislators tried to do just that when, in 2013, they came up with a formula based on ISTEP+ scores and graduation rates, called the Teacher Performance Grant. In 2016, legislators and the governor were shocked when their formula provided wealthy districts such as Carmel and Hamilton Southeastern with grants of $2,422 per teacher while a high-poverty district such as Wayne Township in Indianapolis got only $42 per teacher. Some districts got nothing.

It is no surprise that many teachers were insulted. To teachers, the message was clear: Don't serve children in high-poverty schools if you want a merit bonus. One architect of the grant formula knew where to place the blame. “The issue is the test,” he said. The performance grant has now been changed to an appreciation grant in which every teacher in the state gets around $400 to $500. This Indiana grant tale reinforces the research showing that merit pay in education does not work. Not only are such programs hard to design but often the amount of the bonus is too small to be of any consequence.

In response to the law ending automatic annual salary increases, many school districts froze teacher pay while they determined new salary structures. Under the old system, teachers knew they were not going to get rich, but at least there was a predictability to their salary, allowing them to plan for the future. That predictability was now gone under the new law.

With the cumulative effect of so much change and the derogatory rhetoric used to promote it, it should be no surprise that Indiana finds itself with a teacher shortage. The legislature acknowledged this in 2015 by setting up a summer study committee. New teacher licenses, which were increasing and reached a high in 2012-13, decreased significantly and have not recovered. It's a tough sell when a profession is blamed for society's ills, is demeaned by the politicians who control it and has an uncertain financial future.

A school district's general fund, used for staff salaries and education programs, is primarily funded by tuition support, which comes from the state. Tuition support has not kept up with inflation nor kept up with the overall state budget increase in the last 10 years. School districts have other expenses, and they can't pay out what they don't receive in state funding. Many legislators this past fall voiced support for finding a way to increase teacher pay. How to do it is the issue.

Some legislators have said the teacher pay issue should be solved locally. The only option for local districts to do this would be a general fund referendum, increasing property taxes to add to the general fund. This would favor wealthier districts. In the 10 years of school referendums, districts with more than $300,000 in assessed value per student have passed 81 percent of their referendums, while districts with less assessed value have passed only 51 percent of their referendums.

During Daniels' first term as governor, school districts' general funds were a combination of local property tax dollars and funds from the state. Arguing that such a system allowed wealthier districts to raise and spend more money, Daniels pushed the legislature to change to the current system in which nearly all of a district's general fund comes from the state. It's ironic that some of those same legislators now wish to return to a “rich get richer” scheme.

There are legislators who have claimed that school districts have too many administrators and decreasing their number would free more money for teachers. Each school district has to do its own analysis, but the state has a formula for tracking how district funds are spent. Fort Wayne Community Schools spends 66 percent of its funds on student achievement, more than the state average of 61 percent, and is right at the state average of 6.8 percent spent for corporate administration.

Despite early talk of increasing teacher pay across the state, the most recent talk has been to “pump the brakes.” Gov. Eric Holcomb suggested studying the issue for two years.

In recent years, Indiana has lowered the personal income tax rate as well as the corporate income tax rate. A modest increase in either, restoring the personal rate to 3.4 percent, for example, could provide funds for teacher raises across the state.

Our legislators should be able to designate that extra money for teacher salaries. Just please avoid performance pay.

Julie Hollingsworth is president of the Fort Wayne Community Schools board of trustees. A retired educator, she has 32 years of experience in public education, including 30 years with the Fort Wayne district.