Young and early-career teachers in Indiana need a competitive income, with sustainable growth potential, to keep them in the profession.

Right now, the Hoosier state — hailed by its Statehouse leadership as a fiscal envy of the nation — would be hard pressed to claim its public school funding structure is substantial enough for 20- and 30-something teachers to buy a car, a home and eventually put their own children through college. Indiana ranked last in the nation for growth in teacher salaries from 2002 to 2017, according to the Rockefeller Institute of Government, a public policy think tank in Albany, N.Y.

Hoosier teachers’ salaries grew $6,904 during that 15-year stretch. Never mind the national leaders’ numbers — Alaska incomes grew by $27,688 and Oregon’s by $27,511. Neighboring states well outpaced Indiana, too. Michigan teachers’ pay climbed $14,263, Kentucky’s by $14,295, Ohio’s by $15,680 and Illinois’ by $19,451.

Those numbers may make Indiana look prudent to some. The situation manifests in schools, though, when they struggle to find enough qualified teachers to cover even core classes. Students feel the effects.

State legislators can improve that picture, and should.

The two-year budget proposal announced Thursday by the ruling Indiana Senate Republicans sets aside $14.9 billion for K-through-12 schools, with increases of 2.7 percent in 2020 and 2.2 percent in 2021.

Those levels exceed the Indiana House budget increases of 2.1 and 2.2 percent.

The boosts do not directly increase teachers’ pay, unfortunately, but do allocate more funding for the state’s Teacher Appreciation Grant program (or TAG).

The TAG program would get $90 million in the two-year stretch — a $30-million jump from the previous budget — for increased pay to teachers through stipends. One-third of that funding is earmarked for early-career teachers. Teachers with less than five years experience could receive a cash stipend if they receive evaluations at the “effective” or “highly effective” levels.

Other teachers rated “highly effective” would receive bonuses 25 percent larger than those rated “effective.”

Local districts would have the option of adding half the stipend amount to teachers’ base salary.

Gail Zeheralis, the Indiana State Teachers Association’s director of government relations, told CNHI Statehouse reporter Scott Miley the Senate plan was “moving in the right direction,” but hopes for a “continued conversation” with legislators on the topic.

The Senate plan also frees up some local school district money by covering $150 million in teacher pension obligations, a move that could theoretically allow teacher pay increases. That decision would be left to local districts. A Senate plan would set a goal of districts spending 85 percent of their state funding on classroom costs, including teacher compensation. Those that spend in excess of 15 percent on operations would face accountability requirements.

The bottom line is that while the Legislature’s steps help, Indiana needs a firmer commitment to its teachers to maintain a robust education workforce. Two educator organizations — Stand for Children and Teach Plus — contend $658 million is needed in the budget to lift Hoosier teachers’ pay to the midpoint of neighboring states, The Associated Press reports.

Thus, lawmakers may be “moving in the right direction,” but have a long way to go.

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