Even if no one imagined the circumstances under which a long-awaited teacher compensation report would be delivered, Indiana teachers knew its key finding: “Hoosier teachers earn less than teachers in all our neighboring states, and Indiana's $36,498 starting salary is more than $3,600 below the national average.”
It took the Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission nearly two years to acknowledge what some educators have argued for a decade. If the commission's recommendations look even more challenging in a post-COVID-19 economy, its report at least makes a powerful case for implementing them, acknowledging “the high cost of making up for a 20-year regression,” as well as the fact that “some of these recommendations will not be possible without significant additional funding.”
“With over 65,000 full-time public school teachers in Indiana ... achieving competitive compensation will require an additional annual investment in teachers of more than $600 million,” the report states. “Some of this can be derived from expense reallocations, but capturing potential efficiencies has limits and will need to be coupled with new revenue sources.”
A general tax increase is a non-starter, and Gov. Eric Holcomb and legislative leaders already are suggesting that flatlining education spending next year might be the best the state can do. For a district such as Fort Wayne Community Schools, with an enrollment decline of about 700 state-funded students this year, that will mean less revenue, even though facility and personnel costs are largely unchanged.
The average salary for Fort Wayne's 1,797 teachers is $53,064, about $300 below the statewide average. Huntington County Community School Corp.'s average teacher salary is nearly $3,300 below the Indiana average. It also experienced an enrollment decline this fall. Both districts will be hard-pressed to make any progress closing the salary gap between their teachers and Indiana teachers overall, let alone progress toward the $60,000 annual salary the commission set as a goal.
The panel's 37 recommendations for raising teacher pay all have some merit. But FWCS' Steve Corona, one of the state's longest-tenured school board members, offered another: Reduce the amount of tax money sent to private and parochial schools as vouchers.
“If they're serious about raising teacher pay in public schools, this is the fund that they need to take a look at,” he said.
He's right. The cost of Indiana's voucher entitlement program grew by 924% in just seven years, from $15.5 million in 2011-12 to $158.8 million in 2018-19. More than 25% of voucher recipients come from households earning $75,000 a year or more. More than 7% of the students come from households earning $100,000-plus.
It's no coincidence that Indiana's public school teacher salaries have slipped as the cost of the voucher program has skyrocketed. Lawmakers can stop the decline by tightening income eligibility for an entitlement program sold as a way for poor students to escape failing schools. Support for today's public school teachers and the next generation of teachers should take precedence over private-school tuition for families with the means to pay it themselves.