By Helen Shere
Last week, I attended the Governor’s Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission’s Indianapolis input session. The Commission was created to collect innovative ideas on teacher pay in Indiana. At the meeting, I listened to educators from across central Indiana speak about the effects of low salaries and rising insurance costs. Throughout that meeting and into the convenings that happened this week in Evansville and Elkhart, the message was clear: As a state, we must take immediate action for the sake of our teachers and students.
My own experience mirrors that of the educators who spoke at the session. As an early-career Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) biology teacher, my take-home pay after insurance, classroom supplies, and childcare for the baby my husband and I are expecting this fall would be $600 a month. After running the numbers and considering my future earning potential within the district, I decided to hand in my resignation. Unfortunately, it didn’t make financial sense for me to teach — and each year, many teachers in Indiana reach the same conclusion.
According to the NEA, Indiana’s average teacher salary in 2018–19 was $50,937, roughly $10,000 below the national average. Equally concerning is our state’s average starting teacher salary of $35,943, which is not only below the national average for novice teachers ($39,249), but is well under the $48,000 national median salary for recent college graduates. This means that early-career teachers in Indiana have lower salaries than their similarly-educated peers in other fields, and their earning potential in our state is lower than that of educators in other states. It should then come as no surprise that our state loses an average of 18% of its teachers each year, and that the majority of those who leave the classroom are teachers in the first five years of their career.
While these statistics paint a bleak picture, there are a number of innovative solutions that can be gleaned from both school districts and the private sector. For example, in 2017 Wayne Township in Indianapolis reported a 9% turnover rate, half the state average. Wayne’s focus is on attracting and retaining early career teachers and its salary schedule begins at $42,500 and caps at $83,270, nearly $10,000 higher than IPS’ highest salary of $74,920. Wayne’s salary model also allows teachers to advance their pay in large increments by earning “points” for professional development, continuing education, and teacher leadership. This approach attracts early career teachers into the district and offers incentives to those teachers to advance professionally over time to help retain them long-term.
Compensation models found in the private sector may also benefit our state’s schools. For example, companies such as Aetna and Staples offer student loan repayment as part of their benefits package. Different models exist for this — some employers make flat monthly contributions, while others use a system similar to a 401(k) match — but any substantial offer of loan repayment would make a district competitive to teaching applicants. This would help attract early-career teachers, who are often recent college graduates carrying student debt, and provide an incentive for them to remain in the classroom long-term. As an added perk, it may encourage experienced teachers to pursue continuing education opportunities.
Another idea is to provide novice teachers with grant money (similar to a signing bonus) that can be used to offset the expense of setting up a classroom for the first time. Teachers frequently spend their own money on school supplies; these funds would go far in helping new teachers establish their classrooms without breaking their budgets. Finally, districts should look critically at their insurance policies, and if needed, adjust them to be more family-friendly. Certain rules, such as spousal exclusion, can put growing families in a financial bind. In my case, continuing to teach would have meant paying for two separate insurance policies, each with high deductibles. Family-friendly insurance options should be commonsense in a field where the majority are women, and most of them are of childbearing age during the first years of their career. Of course, not all teachers choose to have children, but those who do should be supported rather than pushed out of the classroom.
The Commission has now heard from stakeholders from across the state. As they process the input from the public, I encourage the Commission to consider a variety of solutions, taking cues from successes in every field. I also urge them to continue to speak with teachers and principals individually to better understand the financial realities facing our educators, and to research innovative best practices to address the issues concerning teacher compensation. We need these critical conversations and we need positive change for Indiana’s teachers.
Helen Shere previously taught 9th-12th grade IB biology at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis. She is Teach Plus Indiana Teaching Policy Fellowship alumna.