‘This is not rocket science’: Indiana educators bring ideas for raising teacher pay to Holcomb’s commission

When Robin Robinson stood in front of the governor’s teacher pay commission on Monday, she came prepared with a script: a paper listing her salary, year by year.

As the eighth-grade social studies teacher for the Monroe-Gregg School District recited her annual salaries, a trend became clear. She has been teaching for more than 30 years, but around 15 years ago her salary stopped growing. Then it started shrinking, landing below $60,000.

The seven-member commission panel — made up of former corporate executives, a philanthropist, and non-profit leaders — heard many similar stories as teachers offered their ideas and pleas for better pay.

The suggestions put forth over more than two hours largely reiterated familiar calls: to reallocate funding from charter schools to public schools, strengthen teachers’ power to bargain their contracts, and bring back a pay scale that guarantees more pay for teachers each year they work.

Many teachers said they were thankful for the opportunity to be heard — but said they had shared these suggestions before.

“There are so many seemingly obvious solutions,” said Marydell Forbes, an English teacher at West Lafayette Jr./Sr. High School. “With all due respect, this is not rocket science. And while we are passionate, we are not the Peace Corps.”

Monday night was the public’s first chance to provide input to the state commission tasked with making recommendations for how to improve teacher salaries. Until now the group has only met privately — a decision the state’s public access counselor previously said was legal although it stirred controversy, especially among educators.

Monday’s meeting — the first of three scheduled this month around the state — was also the group’s first opportunity to provide a public update on its work.

Commission Chairman Mike Smith didn’t say exactly what changes the commission is considering. He opened the meeting by saying the group has met at least once a month for more than six months, reviewing national and state data and sifting through more than 2,000 suggestions from at least 800 teachers that were submitted online. Members also met individually or in small groups with state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, he said.

Both current Indiana State Teacher Association president Keith Gambill and former president Teresa Meredith were among those who called for the state to allow districts to reinstate salary schedules that would allow them to set a predetermined pay increase for teachers each year, or with each added degree or certification.

Mark Hodson, a language arts teacher at Anderson High School in Anderson, said he started teaching in Indiana prior to 2011, when lawmakers abolished salary schedules in favor of tying teachers’ raises to their evaluations.. Knowing that his pay would increase helped when his starting salary was low, he said.

“I had a plan,” he said. “I knew that one day I would be all right. I could buy a home, I could buy a car, we could send our kids to school.”

Teachers also called for the commission to consider the rising cost of insurance. In May, Robinson said teachers in her district got a raise. But after insurance costs increased, Robinson said she ended up taking home $21 less per paycheck.

One teacher suggested having one common insurance plan for all public educators in the state to try to keep costs to teachers lower, an idea that Smith told Chalkbeat afterwards is “worthy of review.”

More ideas included trying to use money from the Hoosier lottery, large tax breaks for teachers (one teacher suggested protecting $20,000 of teachers’ earnings from being taxed), and making bargaining public so teachers would know what is being negotiated.

Hoosier teachers’ discontent over low pay has recently boiled up, like in many states around the country, with some rallying for bigger paychecks. It’s a critical issue that has become contentious for public school teachers against the backdrop of Indiana’s fiscal conservatism and proliferation of school choice, which some criticize for drawing dollars away from school districts.

Indiana has consistently ranked among the lowest states in teacher pay, lagging so far behind neighboring states that it would cost nearly $658 million to increase teacher salaries to competitive levels, a report by Stand for Children Indiana and Teach Plus Indiana found.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that Indiana teachers made an average salary of $50,554 in 2016-17. Some of the state’s lowest-paid teachers make closer to $30,000 a year.

“We’re not asking to be rich,” Forbes said Monday. “We’re asking to be treated as the college-educated professionals that we are, and to have a living wage with which to raise our families.”

The majority of the crowd of about 100 people had taught for more than 20 years, according to a show of hands.

In an effort to help districts boost teacher salaries, this year lawmakers sent more money overall to schools and relieved pension expenses for districts. But the funding increase is expected to keep education spending about on track with inflation, and there was no requirement that districts put any savings from pensions toward teacher pay. A proposal to raise the starting salary for Indiana teachers to $40,000 was also shot down.

Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb introduced the commission and its advisory council during his January State of the State address. The commission is expected to submit recommendations to the state legislature by its next budget-writing session in 2021.

Two more public meetings are scheduled:

  • 10 a.m. (Central Time) Saturday, Aug. 24, at the Central High School auditorium, 5400 First Avenue, Evansville
  • 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 27, at the Concord Jr. High Cafeteria, 59397 County Road 11, Elkhart

Smith said the commission does not have plans for any other public meeting, but said the commission will continue traveling the state and talking to teachers.

Who’s on the Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission:

  • Commission Chairman Michael L. Smith (Indianapolis), former chairman, president, and CEO of Mayflower Group and former executive vice president and CFO of Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield
  • Jená Bellezza (Gary), COO of Indiana Parenting Institute
  • Tom Easterday (Zionsville), former senior executive vice president, secretary, and chief legal officer for Subaru of Indiana Automotive
  • Marianne Glick (Indianapolis), chair of the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Family Foundation and board member of the Gene B. Glick Company
  • Bob Jones (Evansville), recently retired chairman and CEO of Old National Bancorp
  • Katie Jenner (Madison), senior education advisor to Gov. Holcomb
  • Nancy Jordan (Fort Wayne), senior vice president of Lincoln Financial Group

Who’s on the advisory council:

  • Melissa Ambre (Noblesville), director of the Office of School Finance for the Indiana Department of Education
  • Lee Ann Kwiatkowski (Greenwood), director of public education and CEO of Muncie Community Schools
  • Emily Holt (Arcadia), math teacher at Westfield High School
  • Dan Holub (Indianapolis), executive director of the Indiana State Teachers Association
  • Denise Seger (Granger), chief human resource officer for Concord Community Schools in Elkhart
  • David Smith (Evansville), superintendent of Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation
  • Rebecca Gardenour (New Albany), member of the New Albany-Floyd County Board of School Trustees and member of the Indiana School Boards Association