With just 3 percent of about 1,800 teaching positions open, Fort Wayne Community Schools might not appear to be hurting for teachers. But schools aren't typical workplaces – without a qualified, full-time, permanent teacher in each classroom, students are at a disadvantage.
The five dozen vacancies the district faced as the school year began certainly aren't unique, but the district's urban classification magnifies a statewide problem created by one simple fact: Teacher pay in Indiana is inadequate.
State superintendent Jennifer McCormick acknowledged that last month in remarks to the Indiana Coalition for Public Education.
“We're in a really odd, interesting time right now, but a lot of it goes back to pay matters,” McCormick said.
As The Journal Gazette's Ashley Sloboda reported last week, Indiana scored poorly on a Learning Policy Institute survey of the state's attractiveness to teachers, which considers compensation, working conditions, qualifications and turnover. Indiana scored just 2.07 on the five-point scale, lagging all neighboring states.
Teacher salaries are a major factor in the poor score. Nationally, U.S. Department of Education statistics show teacher pay is 1.6 percent lower than it was in 1999, adjusted for inflation. Indiana teachers now earn almost 16 percent less than they did in the 1999-2000 school year. That's the largest inflation-adjusted decline in pay in the nation.
The past year saw teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and Colorado, with educators calling for both higher wages and increased education funding overall – the average amount schools receive on a per-student basis. Indiana fares poorly there, as well. Indiana schools rank near the bottom for per-pupil funding levels in the country. Census Bureau figures show Indiana spent an average of $9,856 per student in 2016. That's less than was spent in both Kentucky and West Virginia.
Overall education funding affects teacher salaries, but it also affects a school district's ability to hire qualified instructors. Where funding is inadequate, teachers are more likely to use their own money to buy classroom materials and supplies. Teacher/student ratios are likely to be higher and resources such as classroom aides and counselors are likely in shorter supply. It's not tough to figure out why a young special education teacher would choose a position in a wealthier suburban district over the same job in an urban or rural district.
Education is a calling for most who choose to teach, but college credit hours cost the same for an education course or a business class. Purdue Fort Wayne just announced an encouraging 11.4 percent increase in enrollment in its School of Education. While increases there and at other area universities might fill teaching positions in three or four years, retaining those new hires as they juggle college loans with house payments and other expenses will be a challenge if teacher salaries remain stagnant.
As Sloboda reported, first-yearteachers nationally earn about 20 percent less than college-educated people in other fields, with the gap widening to 30 percent by mid-career.
Support for teachers, including adequate compensation, comes down to a matter of priorities. Indiana's elected leaders are quick to boast of the state's sound fiscal position and its budget reserve of nearly $1.8 billion. But they neglect to acknowledge how the state's teachers and schools have fared as the reserve was built.
If Indiana wants to attract and retain qualified teachers, it must begin with a serious debate over education funding. With 125 legislative seats on the ballot Nov. 6, now is the time to begin the discussion.