Teacher pay tops union’s legislative agenda

Indiana educators watched quietly last spring as teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona staged rallies, protests and even walkouts for higher pay. Look for that to change next month when the Indiana General Assembly convenes for its biennial budget-writing session.

The Indiana State Teachers Association released its 2019 legislative agenda Monday, and boosting teacher pay is at the top of its priority list.

Teresa Meredith

Teresa Meredith

“At the end of the day, it’s about compensation,” said ISTA President Teresa Meredith.

The teachers’ union bolstered its case with the release of a poll that found more than 80 percent of Hoosiers favor increased school funding if the bulk of the money goes to the classroom. Over 70 percent of poll respondents said schools are underfunded and teachers are underpaid.

Indiana schools haven’t caught up from funding cuts in the recession of the late 2000s, and teachers and students have borne the brunt of the penny-pinching. Average teacher salaries have declined 15 percent in the past 15 years after adjusting for inflation, according to a Vox analysis.

“Some teachers haven’t seen a meaningful pay increase in 10 years,” said Meredith, whose union represents teachers in most Indiana school districts.

While there is widespread agreement that teachers are due for a raise, the challenge will be agreeing on how to pay for it. Gov. Eric Holcomb wants to spend this year and possibly next to “identify resources and actions” for raising teacher pay sometime in the next four years.

Meredith said teachers expect action now. It’s fine if Holcomb wants to pull together information and create a long-term plan to keep teacher salaries competitive, she said, but there needs to a real school funding increase in the budget that lawmakers approve in the next four months.

Where will the money come from? State officials expect about $350 million in increased revenue in the next budget cycle. The Department of Child Services, struggling with rising caseloads tied to the opioid epidemic, is asking for nearly all of that. A logical answer would be to raise taxes … but this is Indiana.

Meredith said some school districts have built up hefty rainy-day funds with money that should be on the table when teachers bargain for salaries. Some, she said, have shifted spending to administration while teacher salaries stayed flat. But some of those costs, she acknowledged, are beyond districts’ control: Schools need administrators to manage state-mandated tests and teacher evaluations; they hire marketing staff to compete for students with charter and private schools.

Legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, have said they want to address the issue of teacher pay but haven’t specified how they will do it. Meredith takes them at their word.

“I have seen from a number of them a very sincere, genuine interest in acknowledging that teachers are not paid enough – and that it’s time to fix it,” she said.

At the same time, she said, Indiana teachers learned from their colleagues in other states that working together to influence state government can be effective. She predicted “Red for Ed” actions at the Statehouse and across Indiana as legislators meet. Could that mean walkouts? Not necessarily, Meredith said, but she isn’t ruling it out.

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