Indiana House teacher pay plan clears first hurdle, but critics say the bill doesn’t go far enough

A Republican bill calling on districts to raise teacher pay by making other budget cuts passed an Indiana House of Representatives education committee vote Wednesday, despite sharp criticism from school officials and education advocates.

The bill, which comes amid a statewide push for teacher raises, calls for school districts to spend 85 percent or more of their state funding on instruction-related costs, such as teacher salaries. But critics testified before the committee vote that even if districts were able to reduce their non-instructional spending, the bill doesn’t require them to direct that money to teachers.

“It does not guarantee any pay increases for teachers,” said Mike Brown, the state education department’s legislative affairs director. “We all own this problem and must find a solution. Unfortunately, [the bill] is not that solution.”

House Republicans countered that the bill — which passed 9-3 along party lines — was a “first step” toward getting teachers raises, a process that would likely take years. The bill next heads for discussion in the Ways and Means Committee.

“We know this is not the only thing necessary to move teacher salaries,” said Rep. Bob Behning, House Education Committee chairman, adding that more overall funding for K-12 education and efforts would be needed in upcoming budget years.

Read: As Indiana’s teacher pay debate heats up, some lawmakers say schools spend too much outside the classroom

The House plan further deflates expectations for considerable teacher raises in 2019. House Speaker Brian Bosma, Gov. Eric Holcomb, and other state education leaders have called for raising teacher pay, but their plans so far have been vague. An analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics and Council of Community and Economic Research ranks Indiana 18th highest in the nation for teacher salaries adjusted for cost of living, leading some to wonder if the state can prevent teachers from moving to other states.

Some Republican lawmakers balked at the critique of the proposal. Rep. Jack Jordan, a Republican from Bremen, said Brown was being “a little dramatic.” Rep. Jim Lucas, a Republican from Seymour, said since the state already spends half its budget on K-12 education, districts should be able to find other ways to improve spending.

“If we cannot find money for teachers, shame on us,” he said.

But, Democrats and school officials pointed out, money spent outside the classroom, such as on district administrators, transportation, insurance, and utilities, still has an effect on student learning and is not necessarily being used inefficiently. Robert Schultz, chief financial officer for Marion Community Schools, gave the example of athletic coach salaries, which are considered under the state’s new school budgeting system to be “instructional.”

“Does that make sense to anyone that coaches are more important than superintendents?” Schultz said. “It’s not a bunch of administrative costs we’ve got — it’s things we need to operate our buildings at the daily level.”

Schultz said his district has already had to make cuts to deal with losses in revenue, such as those incurred from limits on how much property taxes schools can collect, which lawmakers passed nearly a decade ago. The district is about as lean as it can be, Schultz said.

Nearly every group that addressed lawmakers to testify on the bill either criticized the bill or offered cautious support. Several, including Stand for Children Indiana, said the bill should be coupled with actual salary raises, too. J.T. Coopman, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, asked lawmakers to give districts a chance to adjust to a new budget system before adding to the load by setting new goals around spending.

It was noteworthy that criticism even came from members of the  Indiana Department of Education, which under State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick has been fairly hands-off when it comes to lobbying, at least in public testimony. This past fall, McCormick announced that clashes with lawmakers and state political leaders have led her to reject seeking a second term as schools chief.

Read: The ‘toxic’ politics behind McCormick’s decision to reject a second term as Indiana schools chief

If districts don’t comply with the spending goals, they would be put on a list and required to communicate to their board and the public that they transferred more than 15 percent of their state dollars away from classroom expenses. They could also be called to justify their spending to the State Board of Education.

According to a survey of most of the state’s school districts, said Denny Costerison, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials, about 60 percent of responding districts spend more than 15 percent on operations.

House Republicans denied the bill punished schools.

“This bill will not penalize schools in any way,” said Rep. Dale DeVon, the bill’s author and a Republican from Granger. “It’s just more looking at ways that we can help out those funds and maintain a kind of central mindset for the whole state.”

Rep. Todd Huston, co-chairman of the budget-writing House Ways & Means Committee, said districts shouldn’t see this proposal as something akin to state takeover.

“It’s just an explanation,” Huston said. “Nothing draconian.”