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Students in Caroline Brooks' class fill out geography worksheets, closely reading the map for information. Brooks hopes the students will learn skills that help them on the state test. January 9, 2019.

Students in Caroline Brooks’ class fill out geography worksheets, closely reading the map for information. Brooks hopes the students will learn skills that help them on the state test. January 9, 2019.

‘We’re not there yet,’ Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb says on raising teacher pay

In the Indiana Statehouse, education was the star of the legislative session.

The national buzz over low teacher salaries had reached the Hoosier state. A local school shooting and a deadly crash at a bus stop had put educators and families on alert. And it was time for the biennial budget tussle over school funding.

Plus, political fireworks were blasting — over the power of the state education chief, over selling public school properties, over deeply troubled virtual charter schools.

Republican leaders and some education advocates ended the four-month legislative session last week declaring “tremendous success” for education, but others felt lawmakers left big issues on the table — most glaringly, the issue of teacher pay.

In Richmond, for example, teachers continued “walk-in” rallies after the session ended to highlight that the legislature didn’t do enough for them and their schools.

On Monday, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb acknowledged, “We’re not there yet.”

Holcomb reiterated that he believed raising teacher salaries would be a two-step process — short-term action on top of long-term planning.

The governor said he was happy with the money that lawmakers were able to funnel toward schools, putting the responsibility for increasing teacher paychecks on local school boards. Lawmakers set guidelines to encourage districts to spend 85 percent of their budgets on classroom expenses, limiting administrative costs to 15 percent of the budget.

While there are no clear ramifications for districts that don’t meet those standards, they will have to make their budgeting more transparent and possibly explain their spending to state officials.

Lawmakers pumped more money into schools overall — an average increase of 2.5 percent — and freed up $70 million each year in retirement payments, which they hoped would send more money into teachers’ pockets.

But there’s no guarantee. For some schools, funding will drop in the coming years. Others will see more significant increases. And some schools say they’re still pinched, sometimes forced to ask voters to approve referendums to drum up the funds they need to operate.

Education groups voiced appreciation for the funding increases, but some said schools still need more.

The Indiana State Teachers Association promised to “continue to fight for increased teacher pay and funding for every student,” the group said in a statement last week. “Our members are just getting started and will continue advocacy efforts into the future.”

Lawmakers also added $7.5 million each year to the merit bonus pool for teachers — one area where the extra dollars are specifically directed to them.

In the long-term, a special commission formed by the governor is charged with tackling the teacher pay question. The state will start compiling an annual report on teacher salaries, and officials could also take a closer look at how Indiana funds high-poverty schools.

And the state put money behind creating career ladders and residency programs for teachers, a move that one education group said “elevates the teaching profession in Indiana.”

“I think what you see are solid, incremental steps that we hope will lead to a long-term commitment to really tackle the problem of elevating the profession,” said Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children Indiana. “We knew it would not be achievable in one budget cycle.”

But exactly how long this issue will stretch remains unclear. Next year, lawmakers go into a short session. They will revisit the budget in 2021.