As Indianapolis districts boost teacher pay, charters say they are struggling to compete

When Victory College Prep Academy did an analysis recently of how salaries at the southside charter school compare to district schools, it revealed some stark differences: Educators there are making roughly $6,000 less per year, on average, than they would make at an Indianapolis Public Schools campus when raises go into effect this fall.

“We started asking ourselves, where can we find money in the budget to get closer to their number?” said Ryan Gall, executive director for Victory, which enrolls about 900 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. “We have to do something.”

Teachers across Indiana are rallying for increased pay. But there’s another factor driving up compensation: Central Indiana schools have found themselves competing for teachers, especially in high-demand areas, such as special education, and salary can be a major factor.

Following a successful school funding referendum in 2018, Indianapolis Public Schools has doled out millions of dollars in raises to most staff, and teachers will see starting pay jump to nearly $48,000 in the fall. That boost in pay has been a boon for district teachers, but it has left the city’s charter schools at a disadvantage.

At Victory, leaders may reduce transportation or the number of teachers it employs in order to raise salaries, Gall said. Even so, it won’t be able to match the district salaries, and its pitch to recruit teachers is focused on the other benefits, such as teacher coaching and the relationships teachers build with students.

Teachers at charter schools are not typically unionized, which could be driving down wages for some educators. But some charter school leaders say they would like to match pay increases in districts if only they could afford it.

“We can’t keep up,” said Bart Peterson, president of Christel House International, which runs two Indianapolis charter schools that recently increased starting salaries to $42,500 per year. “We have to try to compete with the salaries of not just IPS for us but the surrounding districts and even outside of Marion County — and we don’t have a revenue source for it.”

Compared to traditional public schools in Indiana, charter schools have less access to funding because districts get money from local property taxes, which are used to pay for facilities and transportation. (Many charter schools in the Indianapolis Public Schools innovation network get some property tax money, but it is still unclear whether they will get a boost in funding from the 2018 operating referendum.)

A state grant that awards most charter schools extra money in a bid to fill some of the funding gap was increased to $750 per student last year. But that is likely substantially lower than what districts receive per student in local taxes. During 2017, estimates ranged from $1,500 to more than $3,000 per student, according to a report arguing for higher funding for charter schools from the Progressive Policy Institute. And when districts win extra money through referendums, that gap grows even wider.

Juanita Price decided to leave her position at Tindley, a local charter network, because she wanted to see what working at a district school would be like. It was only when she was offered a job with Indianapolis Public Schools that she realized it would come with a raise of nearly $5,000 per year.

“When I saw how much more it would be, I was really pleased — really excited about it,” she said. She misses what she said were more clear expectations for students and staff at Tindley as well as the training she got there. But she wouldn’t go back because “the pay is a deal breaker for me now,” she said.

But pay is just one reason teachers leave charter schools. At many Indianapolis charter schools, teaching is particularly demanding. That’s why Natalie Webb left her job at Lighthouse East Charter School, which is now closed, for one in Indianapolis Public Schools — even though she had to take a slight pay cut. (Webb had been able to negotiate her pay at the charter school, and she’s a middle school science teacher — a job that can be hard to fill.)

“I felt like when I was a charter school employee, my pay was pretty competitive,” said Webb, who now teaches in Washington Township. “If you talked to maybe a social studies teacher or an English teacher, maybe they wouldn’t have felt the same way.”

A short-lived proposal in the state legislature last year would have required districts to share the proceeds from referendums with charter schools. The idea doesn’t appear to be making a comeback this year, but charter school leaders are not giving up the campaign for more money.

Charter school supporters say that unless the campuses get more state or local funding, competing with districts for teachers will become increasingly difficult.

Purdue Polytechnic High Schools, a charter network that currently includes two Indianapolis campuses, will increase starting teacher pay to match Indianapolis Public Schools, said Scott Bess, head of schools.

Like many charter schools, Purdue Polytechnic has relied on philanthropy and grants to supplement the state, local, and federal funding it receives. But that money is primarily for startup costs, argued Bess. Increasing teacher salaries is a cost schools must bear for years to come.

“Our teacher raises are going up more than our revenue is going up,” Bess said. Eventually, “that’s going to be a problem if you don’t have some way of leveling it out.”

It isn’t just charters that are struggling to compete. One reason Indianapolis Public Schools increased pay was to catch up with neighboring districts, but townships are also feeling the pressure to boost teacher salaries. The Beech Grove school district, which educates about 3,000 students on the southside of Indianapolis, will ask voters to approve a referendum that’s expected to fund teacher salary increases of $2,000 per year.

More than 25 of the district’s 175 teachers left last year, said Superintendent Paul Kaiser. At under $51,000 last school year, Beech Grove had the lowest average salary of any Marion County district, and the top reason teachers were leaving was for higher-paying jobs in other school systems, he said. At the same time, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find replacements, and in hard-to-fill specialties, competition for educators can be especially stiff.

“I can’t find a special ed teacher,” Kaiser said. “We just have to be more competitive.”