Teacher pay proposal a surprise

Gov. Eric Holcomb dropped a surprise Tuesday in his State of the State address, and it was a good one. He called for tapping Indiana’s budget surplus to add $70 million to funding for K-12 schools each of the next two years.

That’s a little less than a 1 percent increase, but it’s something. And it’s on top of a 2-percent-per-year school funding hike in Holcomb’s budget proposal.

Gov. Eric Holcomb

Gov. Eric Holcomb

It was a surprise because the Republicans who control both the House and Senate had signaled that Indiana’s $1.8 billion surplus was off the table in this budget-writing session. If the GOP governor says it’s not off the table, then it’s not.

The $70 million per year would help pay teacher pension costs that schools currently bear. That would free money for schools to use for other purposes. Holcomb said they should use it all to increase pay for teachers.

The funding will offset some of what school districts and charter schools pay into the Teacher Retirement Fund for teachers who joined the fund after 1996, a spokesperson for the Indiana Public Retirement System told me. Teachers who joined prior to 1996 are in a pay-as-you-go system that’s funded by the state.

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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.

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Data raise questions about school staffing – but don’t answer them

Indiana ranks near the bottom of the states for the percentage of school employees who are teachers and near the top for the percentage who provide “support services,” according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

I don’t know if those stats are perfectly accurate, but they have become a handy talking point for state legislators who claim to want to raise teacher salaries but don’t want to spend any more money.

Lawmakers have pointed to data, reported to the U.S. Department of Education by the states, that indicate only 37.7 percent of Indiana school employees are teachers. The implication is that teachers could be paid more if only there weren’t so many other school employees.

The National Center for Education Statistics is a reliable and widely cited source. The figure is based on 2015 data, the latest available. Only Ohio, at 31.5 percent, has a lower percentage of school employees who are teachers. The national average is just under half.

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Don’t rush to change juvenile laws after shooting

Barely a week after a 13-year-old shot a classmate and a teacher at Noblesville West Middle School, Indiana politicians were questioning a state law that requires the student to face justice as a juvenile, not an adult. Fortunately, any change in the law will have to wait until early next year when the legislature is back in session. Maybe a reasoned approach will prevail by then.

Not that all laws, including those dealing with juvenile justice, shouldn’t be reviewed from time to time. But making big changes in response to one horrifying incident is a good way to get it wrong.

According to news reports, the boy asked to leave class on May 25, returned with two guns and began shooting. Ella Whistler, also 13, was shot seven times and faces a long recovery. Teacher Jason Seaman, credited with tackling the student and preventing more carnage, was struck but not seriously injured.

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Life after Janus? The view from Indiana

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hand down a decision this month in Janus v. AFSCME, a lawsuit that argues it’s a violation of the First Amendment for unions to collect “fair share fees” to offset the cost of representing employees who choose not to join up and pay dues.

If the court rules for Mark Janus, the Illinois government employee who brought the lawsuit, the result will be bad for public-sector unions in the 20-plus states that permit fair-share fees. But unions can still be effective if they work at it, according to officials with the Indiana State Teachers Association – which has been down this road before.

Keith Gambill

“We really focus on the greater work of the association: our ability, when we join together and speak collectively, to be in a better position to effect change,” said Keith Gambill, the association’s vice president. “It’s that collective action, that coming together, that really assists us in working to make learning conditions better for our students.”

Indiana used to have fair-share fees for teachers, but the state legislature outlawed them in 1995. The ISTA, which represents teachers in most of Indiana’s 291 school districts, lost members and revenue as a result, Gambill said. In the years that followed, it lost key battles over education funding and teacher bargaining rights. But it hasn’t been sidelined, and it’s still a player at the Statehouse – despite fighting uphill battles as a group aligned with Democrats in a state controlled by Republicans.

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Muncie schools exempted from state grading, accountability laws

Republicans in the Indiana legislature have been hard-core supporters of school accountability for about as long as I can remember, so it seems odd that they would toss it out the window as part of a deal that hands control of Muncie Community Schools to Ball State University.

But they did. The state law that calls for schools to receive A-to-F grades on the basis of student test scores and other measures? Muncie schools will be exempt. The law requiring state intervention and potential takeover for schools that consistently get low grades? Exempt from that too.

Those provisions of House Bill 1315 got almost no attention in public debate or the news media before the legislation was approved on a near party-line vote in a special session Monday. One wonders how many lawmakers knew they were in the bill before they arrived to get their marching orders.

In general, the legislation doubles down on the state’s year-old takeover of financially troubled Muncie and Gary Community Schools. In addition to inviting Ball State to take charge of Muncie schools, it weakens the elected Gary school board and strengthens the emergency manager who runs the district.

Ball State’s trustees will meet today to approve a resolution to take over Muncie Community Schools. The trustees and Ball State president will appoint a school board to replace the elected Muncie board.

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Secrecy provisions in ‘distressed schools’ bill go too far

Indiana lawmakers may have been trying to do the right thing last week when they created a way for financially struggling school corporations to avoid being flagged for takeover by the state. But they went too far when they made those procedures secret.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted to create new exceptions to the state’s public records and open meetings laws, limiting public scrutiny of efforts by local and state officials to turn around a school corporation’s finances before it gets placed on a state watch list.

Indiana Statehouse

Indiana Statehouse

As Steve Key of the Hoosier State Press Association pointed out, this isn’t just bad public policy – it’s likely to be counterproductive by blocking public participation in important government decisions.

“To me it’s puzzling,” he said. “It doesn’t allow people in the community to support their school district or push the administration and the school board to turn things around before it gets worse.”

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