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Yumar Wheeler attended TEAM Academy middle school over a decade ago. Today, he’s back at the school training to become a teacher.

Yumar Wheeler attended TEAM Academy middle school over a decade ago. Today, he’s back at the school training to become a teacher.

Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat

Bonuses, minimum wage, and tax credits: How Indiana lawmakers want to raise teacher salary

State lawmakers know they have a problem: Teacher salaries are too low, putting Indiana at risk of losing teachers to other states or industries that can pay more.

But there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and legislators are considering a host of ideas for tackling the problem.

So far, teacher pay proposals that have gained traction in the legislature and with teacher advocacy groups include asking schools to fund raises by spending less on administrative costs, raising tax credits for teachers who spend their own money on classroom supplies, and funding small amounts of extra pay for teachers in leadership roles.

Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has also promised to use reserve funds to free up $140 million for schools over the next two years.

Teachers’ salaries haven’t kept pace with inflation, and in Indiana, the average teacher salary — $50,218, according to the National Education Association — is lower than the national average and lower than neighboring Midwestern states.

Lawmakers have made addressing teacher salaries a priority this year, though they say it could take years to make meaningful progress. Here’s a roundup of some of the different proposals for raising teacher salaries.

Raise the cigarette tax

One proposal suggests using the cigarette tax to help fund $2,000 bonuses for teachers in each of the next two years.

That would cost the state about $120 million each year, according to the bill. To do that, Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, proposes raising the cigarette tax by $1 per pack.

Cook also suggests using some of the money that state agencies don’t end up spending — which can be unpredictable — and the new sales taxes from purchases from online and remote retailers.

Stand for Children Indiana, a parent advocacy group that often supports educational reform efforts, praised the proposal as a “meaningful” step. The bill has been assigned to the House Ways & Means Committee but has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

Set a minimum wage

What if all teachers made at least $50,000?

Democrat Ryan Hatfield from Evansville is suggesting establishing that as a minimum wage.

That would amount to a big raise in many districts — the starting teaching salary in Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, was recently increased to $42,587, while starting salaries in more rural areas of the state are likely much lower.

The Legislative Services Agency estimates the proposal would cost districts at least $271 million in 2020, without taking into account how salaries could change for teachers on the higher end of pay scales.

Pony up more money

Gary Democrat Sen. Eddie Melton estimates in one proposal that it would cost $315 million to provide 2.5 percent raises in each of the next two years to licensed teachers, school counselors, social workers with at least a master’s degree, and school psychologists.

While Democrats are calling for the state to put dedicated funds toward teacher pay, it’s unlikely that the legislature would act on this bill. Legislative leaders have indicated that the state doesn’t have that amount of revenue readily available to spend on teacher pay or other issues, and Melton’s bill doesn’t say where the money could come from.

Put strings on funding

Holcomb has said he hopes schools will use overall funding increases to pay teachers more, but a proposal from freshman Rep. Pat Boy, D-Michigan City, would write that into law.

Her suggestion is to simply require schools to give teachers a raise between 2 and 5 percent in order to receive more money.

Other leading lawmakers have said they are seeking mechanisms to try to ensure that additional dollars would go toward teachers.

Loosen how schools determine salaries

Several lawmakers are suggesting changing how schools make salary decisions, such as allowing teachers’ years of experience or advanced degrees to count for more. While this could open opportunities to pay teachers more, it wouldn’t necessarily require schools to do so.

One possibility would be to no longer tie teachers’ evaluations to factors such as student test scores, which could help them win better raises. But this could have little impact if Holcomb follows through with his plan to eliminate merit bonuses and direct the money to teachers in other ways.

Keep performance bonuses

Some leaders disagree with Holcomb and want to preserve the state’s $30 million Teacher Appreciation Grant. For some teachers, that’s the only pay increase they receive, according to Superintendent for Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick.

Senate budget leader Ryan Mishler has also supported keeping the bonuses, even though they’re controversial because of the way they’re distributed.

Pay mentors and leaders extra

Republican leaders have been advancing proposals to reward teachers for taking on extra responsibilities, such as mentoring teachers-in-training and moving into leadership roles.

But lawmakers would still have to decide how much money to put toward those incentives.

Some educators say those proposals would also make teachers feel more respected and provide opportunities for them to grow without leaving the classroom.

Provide more tax credits

The governor and lawmakers from both parties have proposed increasing the classroom supplies tax credit to $500. Still, some lawmakers have raised concerns that teachers must first spend their own money on classroom supplies to claim the credit.

Have schools make other cuts

How do schools spend their money? Republicans want to take a closer look. As a “first step” toward increasing teacher pay, they think that encouraging schools to make budget cuts in other areas could send more dollars toward teachers’ paychecks.

But some education officials are wary that this could make a significant difference — and some wonder whether it’s realistic for districts that are already cash-strapped.

Correction: Feb. 14, 2019: A previous version of this story listed the average teacher salary in Indiana as $54,308. In the week after this story was published, the National Education Association revised its numbers for Indiana based on data provided by the Indiana Department of Education. The NEA now reports the average teacher salary in Indiana is $50,218.