Lawmakers: Raise teacher pay by cutting elsewhere

Indiana legislators want to give educators a raise, but they don’t want to pay for it. Their plan: Shame school districts into cutting spending elsewhere so they can target dollars to teachers.

Their tool for doing this is House Bill 1003, unveiled this week by House Republicans and presented Wednesday to the House Education Committee. It would “strongly encourage” districts to spend at least 85 percent of their state funds on instruction; it would subject them to public scrutiny if they don’t.

Indiana StatehouseThe assumption behind the bill is that schools have plenty of money, but they waste it on bloated administrative expenses and frills. But the data don’t support that claim.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said in a news release that many school districts are spending as much as 20 percent of their state revenue on “overhead and operations.” That includes central administration as well as building maintenance, insurance, technology and other costs that districts can’t always control.

Bosma said some districts’ administrative costs “have ballooned – taking critical dollars away from teachers.” But according to data from the Indiana Office of Management and Budget, statewide school spending on overhead and operations grew by only 3 percent between 2009 and 2016, a span when cumulative inflation was about 11 percent. Spending for student instruction and services – including salaries for teachers and other instructional staff – increased by just 2.7 percent.

The real issue is that school funding in Indiana hasn’t kept pace with inflation.

If the idea that schools should spend more on instruction and less on other things sounds familiar, it should. About 10 years ago, Indiana adopted a program called Dollars to the Classroom in which the OMB publishes spending by category for every school district and charter school. Publicity was supposed to prompt schools to spend more in the classroom. It hasn’t.

HB 1003 goes a few steps further. If schools don’t meet the target of spending 85 percent of state money on instruction, they will be put on a naughty list maintained and posted by the OMB and the Department of Education, as well as on the districts’ websites. If they miss the target two years in a row, they can be called on the carpet by the State Board of Education and forced to justify their spending.

It’s true, as legislators pointed out, that the bill doesn’t mandate changes in spending, but it could make things unpleasant for leaders of districts that miss the mark. Dennis Costerison of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials said about 40 percent of districts currently meet the target.

House Republicans say their top priority for the 2019 session is passing an “honestly balanced budget” for the next two years. With the state’s economy in good shape, you’d think they could find money for schools; but most new revenue is likely to go to Medicaid and the Department of Child Services.

The House Education Committee approved HB 1003 by a 9-to-3 party-line vote, sending it next to the House Ways and Means Committee. Expect more debate as it moves through the legislature.

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