ELKHART — Nearly 900 Elkhart Community Schools teachers woke up early the day before school started to say they’re not happy with their pay.
“Legislators need to understand that changes to teacher evaluation, low levels of funding for schools to pay employees well, and attacks on hard-working public school personnel all contribute to an environment where the people we most want caring for and teaching our children choose not to,” said Steve Thalheimer, Elkhart Community Schools superintendent.
Teachers, staff and administrators met on Tuesday morning at Elkhart Memorial High School ahead of the first teacher work day to make a stand, wearing red shirts for #Red4Ed, a statewide movement.
“I think we, as a state, can do a lot better for everyone who is working in the school system,” said Kellie Mullins, a school board member.
President of the Elkhart Teachers Association, Kerry Mullet, said starting pay for a teacher in the Elkhart school district is $36,000. In Concord, it’s $39,000, but in many districts it’s much lower.
“The problem is you come in at that, and the chances of you getting any sort of increase is slim to none,” she said. “There is no money to do such a thing. You might get a stipend, but your actual salary isn’t going anywhere.”
She added that while 50 percent of Indiana’s budget is earmarked for education, several factors play into lowering the total dollar amount public schools actually receive.
“We have a lot of vouchers that allow students to go to private schools using taxpayer dollars,” she said. “Lots of money is going to for-profit non traditional schools. We have a $100 million dollars going to standardized testing. We have all sorts of things in that pot that’s labeled education not actually making it back to local communities in support of public education.”
The state asks that 85% of the funds school corporations receive be spent on staffing, and Mullet said Elkhart schools uses 88%; it’s still not enough though and there’s nowhere else for it to come from since the state requires that certain funds be spent in certain ways.
During this year’s budget planning, the state provided an addition $763 million to education, but it didn’t earmark funds for raises, instead offering $37 million in teacher appreciation grants. Mullet said she believes, due to changes in the funding formula, the increase in funding will not benefit all districts, although most districts will receive a 2.5% increase.
“We have 291 school corporations in the state. This last legislative session when they did add more money to go toward education, 60 of those districts are likely going to see a drop in funding because of the way they’re doing the funding formula.,” she said.
During the recession, Mullet asserts, the state cut $300 million from the education fund to help cover costs. She said districts were told that once the finances were stabilized, the education fund would see money returned to it, but that’s not what happened.
“That’s why we’re now the lowest paid group of educators in the Midwest,” she said. “There’s always these excuses and it’s really become quite exasperating.”
Thalheimer stated that, in an April study from the Nelson A Rockefeller Institute of Government, Indiana was last among all states and the District of Columbia for increasing teacher pay between 2002 and 2017.
“Schools are simply not receiving the funding necessary to pay our educators what professionals deserve to be paid. The state legislature does not provide funding adequate for schools to pay at a rate that keeps up with inflation,” he said.
Education administrators have expressed frustration over the most recent fiscal session, when lawmakers discovered an additional $410 million in excess and the funds didn’t go toward teacher salaries.
“As teachers in the classroom, we’re busy teaching,” Mullet said. “For all these years we just assumed they would do the right thing, and now as we start digging deeper into the numbers and the budget and the policies we realize that there is a lot of details that aren’t public knowledge.”
Governor Eric Holcomb, R, announced the Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission in February 2019, but Mullet said the two-year study is too little too late.
“We have at least 3,000 emergency teaching licenses that people are holding because we have such a shortage that across the state they’re having to put people onto emergency permits to be in the classroom. We’re not having college graduates come of education anymore. With the amount of student loans you have to take to get a college degree, they look at their starting pay and they have no idea if it’s ever going to crest $30,000. It’s hard to justify. It’s really hard to get people to stay in the profession because of the lack of pay,” she said.
In an effort to continue the conversation surrounding teacher pay, the Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission will be meeting folks at multiple locations around the state. Locally, they will be at at Concord Jr. High School at 7 p.m., Aug. 27. The public is invited to attend and express thoughts.