Teacher salaries need attention from legislators

Two years ago, Gov. Eric Holcomb appointed a commission to study the issue of teacher pay.

The panel’s report, released in December, concluded Indiana teacher salaries have been headed in the wrong direction for 20 years.

In 2000, it said, Indiana’s average teacher salary was $41,850, better than the national average and ahead of all but two states in the Midwest. Now, Indiana ranks 38th in the nation for average teacher salaries, and Hoosier teachers earn less than their counterparts in every neighboring state.

That average salary has gone up by about $10,000 in 20 years, but that’s more than $10,000 behind where it needs to be to keep up with inflation.

Commission Chairman Michael L. Smith issued a statement accompanying the report.

"Ensuring Indiana teachers receive competitive compensation is a high priority and will require everyone involved to work together toward that goal," he said. "Our report provides practical tools to help accomplish this."

He wasn’t kidding.

The commission laid out 37 strategies to address the issue, saying the state could make salaries competitive through a combination of cost-savings, spending shifts and new revenue. The total price tag, it said, would be about $600 million.

Lawmakers apparently didn’t get the memo.

Instead, they seem more focused on House Bill 1005, a measure that would take money away from public education and divert it to the state’s private schools by making more families eligible for vouchers.

That bill passed the House in February by a vote of 61-38. It’s now pending in the Senate Education and Career Development Committee.

According to the latest estimates, those enhanced vouchers would cost the state more than $140 million, nearly a third of the $438 million in new funding for primary and secondary education included in the latest budget proposal.

What that means is that some districts will struggle even to keep up with inflation, and the teachers in those districts will fall further behind.

Districts around the state have issued statements opposing HB 1005 and urging lawmakers to take the money they would have spent on expanding private school vouchers and spend it instead on teacher pay.

Lawmakers should listen. It’s past time that they addressed the issue of teacher salaries head on.

Fair-minded people can certainly debate the relative wisdom of spending tax dollars to support private schools, but when it comes to setting priorities, it seems only reasonable to meet the needs of public schools first.

Paying teachers a competitive wage should be a priority.