Referendums give districts an edge on teacher pay

The Indiana legislature is calling on school districts to spend at least 45% of their state funding distributions on teacher salaries. Some districts will find it easier to meet the goal than others. One reason: referendums that let districts supplement state funding with local property taxes.

According to a December 2020 report from Gov. Eric Holcomb’s Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission, teacher salary costs as a share of state funding vary widely. In 2020, they ranged from about 30% in some districts to over 60% in others.

The report found that 109 of Indiana’s nearly 300 school districts paid less than 45% of their state funding for teacher salaries in 2020. (The figures are in Appendix 15). Those districts will have to increase teacher salaries – in some cases, significantly – or cut other spending to meet the legislature’s target. Collectively, they fell $52.4 million short of paying enough for teacher salaries in 2020.

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Civics for some

Indiana will soon require students to take a semester-long course in civics in sixth, seventh or eighth grade. The requirement was approved by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb. It applies to “each school corporation, charter school, and state accredited nonpublic school.”

You might think that covers everyone, but it doesn’t. According to the Indiana Department of Education, fewer than 200 of the state’s more than 300 private schools are state-accredited. Judging by a state list (see link below), most Catholic and Lutheran schools are state-accredited. Many other Christian schools are not, although they may be accredited by groups like the American Association of Christian Schools.

The new law calls for the State Board of Education to adopt civics education standards, which will be the basis for the required course. It also establishes the Indiana Civics Education Commission, made up of legislators, other state officials and educators, to recommend further civics education actions.

The focus on civics is part of a national trend. According to a report from the Center on American Progress, the subject has received renewed attention since the 2016 election, sparked in part by stagnant scores on social studies exams. Officials also were alarmed by surveys that found only one in four Americans could name the three branches of government and that trust in government had tanked.

In Indiana, the effort got a boost from the 2020 Indiana Civic Education Task Force report, a 56-page document with a host of recommendations produced for the Indiana Bar Association.

The idea that schools should teach civics is not controversial. The Indiana legislation was approved by votes of 49-0 in the Senate and 88-1 in the House. But what a good civics course looks like, and how it should be taught, may not be so simple. I’d envision civics with a strong dose of U.S. history, drawing on sources like Learning for Justice and the 1619 Project. Some legislators might not agree.

A 2020 report from the Brookings Institution casts civics as an “essential 21st-century skill,” incorporating not only knowledge of government but engagement in civil discourse and activities like voting and volunteering. The Brookings report also looks backward, connecting civics with American history and the common-schools movement of the 1800s.

“The fact that children today across the country wake up in the morning and go to school five days a week for most of the year has everything to do with civic education,” writes author Rebecca Winthrop. “The idea of a shared school experience where all young people in America receive a standard quality education is inextricably linked to the development of the United States as a national entity and the development of citizens who had the skills and knowledge to engage in a democracy.”

I’d take the argument a step further and suggest the reduction of official support for public education – as we’ve seen in Indiana – may be linked to the decline in civic awareness and engagement.

Indiana legislators may be boosting “civic-ness” with one hand, when they mandate a new course for elementary and middle-school students. But they’re undercutting with the other, when they increase state support for private schools and turn their backs on the very idea of “a standard quality education.”

Maybe it’s the legislature that needs to learn civics.

No more excuses to not fund schools

Indiana legislators will have to work hard to find excuses to underfund K-12 schools now that a state revenue forecast showed they will have a lot more money to spend.

The forecast, which dropped Thursday, says the state will take in about $2 billion more than anticipated in the two-year budget cycle that starts in July. That’s enough to make significant investments in education while doing a better job of meeting other state spending needs.

Lawmakers may argue otherwise, but the evidence is overwhelming that Indiana schools are poorly funded – and that the lack of money means Indiana teachers are underpaid compared to their peers.

  • Ball State economist Michael Hicks has pointed out that Indiana’s per-pupil school spending has declined by 7% since 2010 in real terms. If we had just kept pace with inflation, he wrote, we would have spent an extra $1.3 billion on education last year.
  • A recent school-funding analysis by the Shanker Institute and the Rutgers Graduate School of Education found that Indiana ranks near the bottom of the states for “fiscal effort,” the percentage of its economic capacity that it spends on schools.
  • A teacher pay commission appointed by Gov. Eric Holcomb found that Indiana needs to find $600 million a year in revenue or savings to raise teacher salaries to the same level as surrounding states.
  • A 2019 study commissioned by the Indiana State Teachers Association was even more pessimistic, concluding Indiana needs to spend $1.5 billion more per year to catch up.

Prior to Thursday’s revenue forecast, the Indiana House and Senate had approved separate versions of the budget that included only minimal increases in K-12 spending. The House budget would direct nearly 40% of the increase to an expansion of Indiana’s private school voucher program. The Senate version dialed back the voucher expansion but still committed significant funding to private schools.

The voucher expansion seems certain to happen, despite massive opposition from supporters of public schools. The only questions are how big it will be and how much it will cost.

But overall funding for K-12 education is now an open question. Advocates say the surprise jump in revenue should make this a no-brainer. The Indiana State Teachers Association is calling on budget writers to “go big on K-12 funding and do what’s best for our schools.” Assistant Democratic Senate Leader Eddie Melton said, “We are now within reach of implementing Gov. Holcomb’s teacher pay commission recommendation to put $600 million a year in the school funding formula.”

Republicans, who dominate the legislature, were already starting to drag their feet. They will claim the positive revenue forecast results from their own “fiscal discipline,” but it’s also due to the $1,400 stimulus checks and the additional child tax credits provided by the feds via the American Rescue Plan. And they won’t expect that to last.

Senate President Rod Bray said legislators must “be wary of the day when the economy begins to turn, because we dare not expect this economy to last forever.”

It’s the same old song from Indiana’s Republican politicians: When times are bad, we can’t spend money on schools, because we don’t have it. When times are good, we can’t spend money, because good times won’t last. You would almost think that education isn’t a priority.

Scholars show how to challenge voucher discrimination

It’s widely known that private schools that receive state-funded tuition vouchers may discriminate against students and families on the basis of religion, sexual orientation and gender identity. Shouldn’t that be illegal? A law journal article suggests it may be.

The article, “Covenants to Discriminate,” argues that voucher programs like Indiana’s could be vulnerable to a legal challenge focused on a state’s role in supporting discrimination. Preston Green of the University of Connecticut, Julie Mead of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Suzanne Eckes of Indiana University Bloomington are authors of the article, published in the New Hampshire Law Review.

Green, the lead author, said supporters promote vouchers to expand opportunities for students and families. But, as the programs expand, state officials often enable them to deny those benefits to entire groups of students.

Photo of Preston Green
Preston Green. (University of Connecticut photo).

“Vouchers were sold as program that all could benefit from, but the anti-LGBT provisions give the lie to that statement,” Green said.

Voucher programs come in a variety of forms, but all provide ways for states to provide full or partial tuition funding to private schools for qualifying students. Indiana’s program, established in 2011, serves over 36,000 students in more than 300 private schools, nearly all of them religious schools, at a cost of $172.8 million. Lawmakers want to expand the program and extend it to upper-income families.

Articles by Eckes and Mead, as well as news media reports, have shown that some voucher schools refuse to admit students who are gay or transgender, students with disabilities, and students whose families won’t sign statements that endorse religious dogma. But the Constitution typically doesn’t address discrimination by private parties, such as private schools. A challenge would have to show that “state action” is depriving students of their rights to equal protection or due process of law.

Green, Mead and Eckes examine several theories of state action and identify two that seem promising. One is that states are, in effect, compelling private-school actions that include discriminating against students. The other is that the states enforce practices and policies that include discrimination.

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