Just say yes to school referendum

If you live in an Indiana school district where a school funding referendum is on the ballot … just vote yes. If your school district is asking for your vote, it needs the money. There’s nowhere to get it except through your local property taxes.

It’s never a slam dunk that your neighbors are going to pass a referendum. The question is near the bottom of the ballot, so many voters won’t scroll down far enough to vote. Some will think they don’t know enough to choose wisely; typically, there won’t have been much news coverage. And the wording on the ballot, dictated by the state, is bureaucratic and confusing.

It’s worse than confusing; it’s misleading. In the Monroe County Community Schools district, the ballot tells voters they are approving a 35% increase in their school property taxes. In fact, the increase will be no more than 15%, as I explained in a previous post.

Simplified, school funding in Indiana works like this: The state provides the money for operating expenses, including teacher and staff salaries; and school districts rely on local property taxes for construction, building and transportation costs.

But the state doesn’t provide enough money for schools to operate effectively, so it gives school districts an option: They can ask residents to vote to increase their own property taxes to provide more operating funds. Eight school districts – Brown County, Delphi, Fremont, Medora, Monroe County, Southern Wells, Southwest Allen and Westfield Washington – are doing that in the Nov. 8 election. A ninth district, Wabash County, is asking voters to approve a tax increase to pay for a school construction and renovation project.

I’ve heard several arguments for voting against the referendums. One is that the state, which has a $6 billion budget surplus, should be paying more to fund the schools, not local taxpayers. That may be true, but it’s not going to happen. Indiana legislators have shown clearly that their priority is keeping taxes low, especially for businesses and high-income individuals, not funding services.

Another argument is that local school districts aren’t spending their money wisely, so why give them more? In Monroe County, for example, some voters may quibble with the money that goes to athletic facilities. But facilities and building improvements are paid for from separate property tax funds. Districts couldn’t have used that money in the classroom even if they wanted to. And if you don’t like the district’s priorities, you can vote for different school board members.

Finally, some people will say they’re already paying too much in taxes and can’t afford more. That’s understandable, given the pressure that inflation is putting on family budgets. But Indiana remains a tax-averse state where officials tout low taxes as a reason businesses should locate here. The conservative Tax Foundation, which generally opposes tax increases, ranks Indiana ninth for its tax climate.

This doesn’t mean voters should give their schools a blank check to spend more money. For referendums, we should expect clear and through explanations of how the money will be spent. The Monroe County Community Schools district (where I live) wants voters to extend referendum funding that would otherwise expire Dec. 31. If approved, it will fund salary increases for teachers, hourly wage raises for support staff and programs for students.

The support staff pay increase is crucial. The district pays its paraprofessionals – who do crucial work in the classroom, especially with special-needs students – as little as $12 or $13 an hour.

Fortunately for Monroe County taxpayers, we can approve the referendum and still pay some of the lowest school property taxes in the state. The overall MCCSC property tax rate, if the referendum is approved, will be no more than 84 cents per $100 assessed property value. In the nearby Richland-Bean Blossom school district, which has a reputation for conservatism, the current rate is $1.08.

The problem with school funding referendums – and this is a real problem — is that they aren’t equitable. Only a minority of Indiana districts manage to pass them. Most don’t try, probably because they know they would fail. The system favors districts with a lot of valuable property on the tax rolls.

But that’s a reason to improve the state funding system, not a reason to vote against your local referendum. Voting yes will make life better for teachers, staff and – most importantly – students. That’s the reason to just do it.

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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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‘Teaching penalty’ large in Indiana

The salary gap between teachers and comparable professionals is larger in Indiana than in most other states, according to a new report from researchers at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education and the Albert Shanker Institute.

The report, “School Finance and Teacher Pay Competitiveness,” supports the argument that Hoosier teachers have fallen behind their peers in other states, despite Indiana’s healthy state budget.

Using education and census data, the researchers examine what’s commonly called the teaching penalty: the difference in average pay between teachers and non-teachers who are similar in terms of education, age and the number of hours they work.

“Overall, the magnitude of the teaching penalty varies quite widely by state,” authors Bruce Baker, Matthew Di Carlo and Mark Weber conclude, “but it is at least meaningfully large in all states, and the gap is larger for veteran versus young teachers in all but a handful of states.”

They estimate that Indiana teachers at age 25 are paid 24.1% less than comparable professionals in the state. At age 55, the gap widens to 31.1%. Those differences are on the high side among the states.

States with the biggest teaching penalties include Arizona, Oklahoma and Colorado, all of which were hit by recent teacher strikes.

The report is based on salaries and doesn’t include benefits, which can be generous for teachers. Including benefits in the estimates might reduce the teaching penalty, but it would still be sizeable, the authors write. Also, the data sample includes private school teachers, who tend to be paid less. But they make up a small percentage of teachers and likely don’t skew the overall findings.

The report finds the teaching penalty is smaller in states that spend more on education (adjusted for labor market costs and other factors) and in states that spend a bigger share of their economy on schools. That suggests states could reduce the penalty – and make it easier for schools to recruit and retain teachers – with better school funding policies. The researchers recommend that states boost funding, but they take no position on whether teacher raises should be targeted or across the board.

A national focus on teacher pay has led to calls for federal action. For example, Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris wants to boost teacher pay by an average of $13,500. But Baker, Di Carlo and Weber argue that any federal teacher-pay program should give priority to states that spend a larger share of their gross domestic product on education.

In other words, the feds should help states that help themselves. Unfortunately, Indiana isn’t one of those. An earlier report by the same authors shows that Indiana ranks near the bottom of the states for school funding “effort.” And that effort is getting weaker.

As Ball State University economist Michael Hicks writes, “If today we (Indiana) spent the same share of GDP on education as we did in 2010, we would have more than $1.56 billion extra this year alone.”

Indiana near bottom in teacher pay, school funding

The National Education Associated released its annual report on teacher salaries this week, and, once again, Indiana doesn’t look very good.

The average salary for an Indiana public school teacher in 2018-19 is $50,937, according to the report, compared with a national average of $61,730. In other findings:

  • Indiana ranked 36th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia for average teacher salary.
  • Adjusting for inflation, Indiana’s average teacher salary has declined by 12.7% in the past decade, the fourth-worst drop in the country after Washington, Michigan and Wisconsin.
  • Indiana was fifth from the bottom in reported public school expenditures per student at $8,496. That compares to a national average of $12,602.
  • Per-pupil spending declined by 2.6% in Indiana from the previous year, the worst drop in the country.

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Crunch time for school funding, teacher pay

This chart from Forbes Statistica has been all over social media in Indiana in recent weeks, as well it should be. I wonder if Indiana legislators have seen it – and if they have, if they’re paying attention.

It shows that Indiana ranks dead last when it comes to increases in teacher salaries over the past 15 years. Pay for Hoosier teachers has increased by less than $7,000, not adjusted for inflation. That’s less than half the increase seen in neighboring states Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky.

The legislature is hitting the home stretch on its 2019 session. By far the most important business left to resolve is approving a two-year state budget, including funding for schools. So far, lawmakers have proposed K-12 funding that barely keeps up with inflation. That needs to change.

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Study: Indiana lags on school funding

Indiana has fallen far behind neighboring states when it comes to funding K-12 education, according to a study released this week by the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Robert Toutkoushian

Robert Toutkoushian

It’s also fallen behind where it used to rank on education spending and teacher salaries. A few years ago, Indiana did a relatively good job of funding schools, but it has slipped markedly in state rankings.

And it will take a lot of money to catch up, the study finds. The state would have to increase K-12 spending by nearly $1.5 billion a year to catch up with surrounding states. It would have to boost spending by $3.3 billion a year to get back the ranking it enjoyed five years previously.

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Are Hoosier teachers underpaid?

Are Indiana teachers underpaid compared to their peers in others states? It’s a reasonable question to ask as state officials debate ways to find more money for teacher salaries.

A report from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis suggests they are underpaid. After adjusting for cost of living, Indiana teacher salaries rank 32nd among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, it says.

The average “real” salary for a Hoosier teacher in 2017 was $56,347 after adjusting for the state’s low cost of living. Adjusted average salaries ranged from $75,000 in Alaska to $46,230 in Oklahoma.

Significantly, Indiana’s adjusted average salary was well below that for teachers in surrounding states. Gov. Eric Holcomb has suggested Indiana needs to raise educator pay because it’s at risk of losing teachers to nearby states with higher salaries.

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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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Indiana teacher pay shrinking

Average teacher salaries in Indiana have declined by over 15 percent in the past 15 years after adjusting for inflation. That’s according to an interactive analysis produced last week by Alvin Change of Vox, drawing on data from the National Education Association.

Indiana’s pay cuts, Chang writes, are “worse than the nation as a whole, where teachers have had their pay cut by an average of 3 percent when we adjust for inflation. And since 2010, teachers in Indiana had their pay cut by 9.7 percent.”

They’re also worse than in West Virginia, where low pay and a lack of raises touched off a two-week teacher strike that pushed state officials to approve a 5-percent raise for educators. Clearly, lagging teacher pay is an issue across the country. The West Virginia strike could be a harbinger of things to come. Kentucky or Oklahoma could be next.

Chang quotes the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities to explain what has happened:

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More on Indiana school improvement grants, winners and losers, creativity

The Indiana Department of Education has awarded a second round of school improvement grants, and this time none of the more than $13 million is going to charter schools. Of course, two of the three charter schools that applied for the grants were funded in the first round. (Five of the 13 non-charters that applied have now been funded).

The DOE last week awarded $5.7 million to George Washington High School, $5.5 million to John Marshall High School and $2.5 million to Bendix School. Washington and Marshall are part of Indianapolis Public Schools; Bendix is an alternative school in the South Bend Community School Corp.

The grants, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, are designed to make dramatic improvement in the state’s lowest-performing schools. Washington and Marshall will implement a “turnaround” model of improvement, which includes replacing the principal and half the staff.

Real winners and losers

We wrote three weeks ago about the risk that “winners and losers” could result from Indiana’s growing reliance on local property-tax referenda to fund public schools. In Illinois, which relies heavily on local taxes to fund schools, according to federal data, there certainly are some winners. Continue reading