'Our hands have been tied by the laws': State officials bring teacher pay problem to forefront

NOW: ’Our hands have been tied by the laws’: State officials bring teacher pay problem to forefront

NAPPANEE, Ind. - This pandemic has brought Michiana together like we’ve never seen, and a lot of unsung heroes have taken center stage like teachers!

But the big discussion right now, with all the work teachers, are putting in to continue to teach your kids, are they getting paid enough?

Teachers have been pushing for higher wages in Indiana for years and it’s an issue Governor Holcomb has even recently addressed. In fact, according to state officials, teachers are on average paid almost $10,000 less than they should with competitive pay.

When describing teachers, many have positive words to say.

"They’re life-changers," Scot Croner, Superintendent at Wa-Nee Community Schools said.

"Service," Tina Green, a 7th-grade teacher at Wa-Nee Community Schools said. "Teachers, serve, not only their students but their community. They serve the future."

But the positivity doesn't last long. The pandemic has shone a light on all the hard work teachers are doing to make sure your students continue to learn effectively, but there’s a looming darkness behind that light. Teacher pay.

"Teachers are asked to do more and more and more," Croner said. "There are teachers who are just beyond frustrated and it's, it goes far deeper than just pay, but when you do all that. And then you also say, but no raises this year. It's a pretty tough pill to swallow for teachers."

Governor Eric Holcomb put together a task force called the Indiana Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission in 2019 to address the problem of teacher pay. Their goal: to determine what competitive teacher pay is and provide recommendations to achieve it.

"We looked at data covering every state in the country," Mike Smith, the Committee Chair said. "We interviewed thought leaders and experts from all over the country. We held town hall type meetings with teachers and school officials across the state.”

As you could’ve guessed, a massive pay gap was found by the group. In Indiana, teachers are paid $51,119 a year on average. The commission reported competitive teacher pay should be at $60,000. That’s a nearly $10,000 pay gap. And not only is this a problem, but it’s a trend.

"Indiana for most of recent history was at or above the middle when compared nationally to teacher pay. In the last decade and a half, specifically from 2000, to 2021. And more importantly, from 2009 to 2021, we've had a steep downward trend," Smith said. "In our comparative pay, we have slipped from 24th in the nation to 36th in the nation, we were in the top three in the midwest, and we're now number 12, out of relevant midwestern states, so a fairly significant change in our pay relative to other states."

Even though there is a downward trend, state funding as a whole hasn't changed

"There's never been a defunding of K-12. Education, we have not reduced funding.," he said. "Your General Assembly has funded K-12 education at a fairly significant increase. But if I look over the entire period, we have not kept up with inflation. In fact, I'm not happy to report this to you. But on an inflation-adjusted basis, our teachers, on average, make less than they did more than a decade ago. So we've not kept up with inflation.”

So what happened? What went wrong?

"Oh, goodness, I think there are lots of things that contributed to it. First of all, the Indiana economy has not grown at the same rate as the nation's economy. We had a very serious economic setback in '08 '09. And our economy has not recovered as strongly as other states," Smith said. "Since that decline, we've had a number of other very important priorities to compete with an Indiana health care cost being one of them."

"We went away from funding education, globally, and funding it from a state-level," Croner said.

But if you ask school administrators and teachers, there are even more things that contribute to the pay problem.

"Your traditional public's, you have your charter schools and you have your vouchers," he said. "And, unfortunately, oftentimes when you try to fund three different systems, you don't end up funding any of them adequately.”

"There has been legislation over the past 10 years or so that has really tied our hands. As far as making it possible to give teachers raises because they've put a lot of laws in place that you know you have to fit these criteria in order to get a raise," Green said. "And so a lot of salaries have remained stagnant over those 10 years which makes it really hard for, especially young teachers, especially on teachers with families to make ends meet.”

Tina Green is a 7th-grade math teacher at Wa-Nee Community Schools in Nappanee, Indiana.

"I have been teaching for 26 years," she said. "We used to have a salary schedule. So if you did x y and z, then you would move up the salary schedule, we don't have that anymore. Here it became more about testing, and how can we hold teachers accountable as opposed to how can we give teachers, the time, the resources, and the freedom to make a difference, make an impact on student lives.”

"When you look across that table at your hard-working teachers, and there are just no funds available so that they can go home and take care of their families so that's, it's tough," Croner said.

"So they have to supplement their income or teachers who have children, and, you know, in order to make it work," Green said. "They're working, two, and three jobs to try to make it as a teacher because they love what they do, they don't want to leave the profession.”

And the pay gap, not just affecting teachers’ pockets.

"So many of our rural school corporations fight teacher shortages every year, many of our highly populated densely populated urban districts struggle to complete their staffing arrangements. We have suffered a shortage of STEM teachers for many, many years in Indiana. So it's a big issue," Smith said.

It's causing quality teachers to leave their districts.

"We've lost teachers. I lost industrial trades teacher this past year. He's making twice as much, he was making in the classroom," Croner said.

And officials say the problem will just continue... if something isn’t done.

"There are fewer kids that are looking at education as a viable option to take care of their families," he said.

"A little over a decade ago, Indiana had in a typical year 5000 students entering teacher preparation programs that is aspiring teachers, that is off by more than 1000 per year," Smith said.

"We used to see 20 applicants for an elementary teacher position, you know in this day and age, we're lucky to get 10 now. That's for an elementary teaching position if you get to a specialized area like science and math. Industrial trades special education. I mean, we may be lucky to get three or four," Croner said.

"So, the challenge is, when we hire, we know more than likely we're stealing from another school system, and those kids have needs as well," Smith said.

"The needs of teachers have not decreased. It's just the pay has, and that's why it's making it more and more difficult to keep great teachers in the classroom," Croner said.

"If we want great school systems, we need great teachers. If we want to attract great teachers, we have to pay them fairly and competitively," Smith said.

In the end, paying teachers more could cost the state anywhere from $450 million up to $600 million when you account for benefits and that's every year. The commission provided 37 recommendations at the local and state level but will anything actually change?

This Thursday at 6 we dive into those recommendations and get some answers. If you have any questions regarding teacher pay, reach out to us! Learningcurve@abc57.com

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