State dedicates more funds, but is it enough?

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

In the wake of a national debate on teacher pay and walkouts in states across the country, the Indiana legislature dedicated more funding to education in the budget this legislative season, but whether local schools will see much of an increase remains to be seen.

Overall, the legislature increased the education budget about 2.5% and freed up about $70 million in teacher retirement payments with the hope that that would allow local school boards to dedicate more funding to teacher salaries. But an increase to the state’s education budget doesn’t guarantee an increase in local schools’ budgets. Funding is still tied to enrollment, so schools who see a drop in enrollment could see their funding stay the same or drop, despite the statewide increase.

At Northeast Dubois, for example, educators don’t expect much to change funding wise. The school district has seen a decrease in enrollment over the years, leading to a decrease in funding, and doesn’t have a lot of children with additional needs — such as English language learners or special needs students — that garner additional funds from the state.

Amy Mitchell, president of the Northeast Dubois Classroom Teachers Association and family and consumer science teacher at Northeast Dubois High School, said the corporation is only expecting to see a .4% funding increase next year, despite the statewide increase being higher. Mitchell doesn’t expect much of Northeast Dubois’ additional funds will be available for teacher salaries.

“You’ve got utility bills and things that keep increasing, so I think that’s going to gobble up that .4%,” she said.

At Greater Jasper, the situation looks a little bit different than at Northeast Dubois. Greater Jasper has higher enrollment and more students with additional needs, leading to more state funding for the district, but even so, Jasper Superintendent Tracy Lorey said it’s hard to tell what will happen to the district’s funding until enrollment for the coming school year is finalized.

Still, Lorey said, she expects to see some increase in funding for Greater Jasper, and she said those funds would be dedicated to staff salaries, wages and benefits, as well as programming for students.

“Anytime we have an increase in dollars, we look to increase the salaries, wages and benefits of staff,” Lorey said. “And that goes to support programs for our students, too.”

While the increase to the education budget — already the largest line item in the state’s budget — is a start, educators say there’s still work to do. There’s data to back up their claim. According to national labor statistics, the average teacher salary nationwide is $58,064, while in Indiana it’s $54,308. Indiana also ranks dead last in salary increases for teachers between 2002 and 2017, averaging a $6,904 increase in that time, according to Forbes. Alaska showed the highest increase from 2002 to 2017, adding $27,688 to its teachers’ salaries.

Some lawmakers and politicians agree with educators that teacher pay needs to increase. Early in the legislative season, Democratic Rep. Ryan Hatfield filed a bill that would mandate a minimum salary of $50,000 for full-time teachers in Indiana, and Gov. Eric Holcomb in his State of the State address pledged to tap into state reserves to put $140 million toward pension liability for schools, thus reducing school corporations’ expenses so more funds can be put toward teacher salaries.

Hatfield’s bill didn’t pass, but the state did free up money for teacher pensions. Still, Chalkbeat, an online education news source, reported Holcomb saying, “We’re not there yet,” in regard to teacher pay at the end of the legislative season.

Nikki Roberts, a fourth-grade teacher at Ireland Elementary and president of the Jasper Classroom Teachers Association, agrees with Holcomb’s assessment.

“It’s a drop in the bucket, what they’re giving us,” she said.

She suggested the lawmakers look at the funding formula. Although the state spends most of its budget on education, those funds are split between public schools, charter schools and some non-public schools, such as private schools, through the state’s Indiana Choice Scholarships program, which is also called the voucher program. When public schools lose students to charter or non-public schools, Roberts said, they lose funding — about $6,000 per student — despite not losing enough students to cut staff.

“If you have 20 or 25 kids in class, you still have to pay that teacher,” Roberts said.

Public schools also tend to have more students with additional needs, Roberts said, in part because charter and private schools don’t accept those students as often. Public schools, however, are required to accept all students in their districts, regardless of additional needs.

“My suggestion would be for the people who work in Indianapolis or Washington, D.C., to visit and sit in our classrooms for a week to see all the needs the kids have,” Roberts said. “It’s not a black-and-white situation.”




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