The Outstater

March 4, 2024

An Eternal Education Conundrum

I BELONG TO A STUDY GROUP that takes up a public policy issue each month. Over the months, one thing has become painfully clear: Viable and sometimes obvious solutions are more plentiful than the will to apply them. Indeed, in many cases it would be just a matter of noticing what’s going on. And if that sounds too pat, here is an example — school funding.

Hundreds of legislators have gone through the Statehouse in the two decades since the Indiana Policy Review published its study on school funding. Political careers have been made, fortunes secured. Literally thousands of editorials and speeches on the importance of funding classroom learning, hundreds of bills. The result, it is argued here, has been zilch.

Let’s be more specific. Education takes up the lion’s share of the state budget, and “classroom learning” is code for the single most critical item in that budget — the teacher. Yet, teachers are inarguably underpaid and overworked. Teacher shortages are reported in almost every Indiana district.

What’s going on?

To that point the Reason Foundation last week released its study “Public Education at a Crossroads.” Here is what it says about Indiana:

“Between 2002 and 2020, Indiana’s student population grew by 5.5 percent. At the same time, the number of total public education staff grew by 15.3 percent, with teachers increasing by 3.4 percent and non-teachers increasing by 25.6 percent. The average inflation-adjusted teacher salary in the state went from $63,818 in 2002 to $51,745 in 2020, a -18.9 percent growth rate that ranked 50th in the U.S.”

Fiftieth?

There’s more: “Indiana’s inflation-adjusted education revenue grew from $13,116 per student in 2002 to $13,368 per student in 2020, a 1.9 percent growth rate that ranked 49th in the U.S. During this time, real spending on employee benefits grew by 20.6 percent — ranking 46th in the country— going from $2,696 per student to $3,252 per student. In 2020, Indiana had $10,458,248,000 in total education debt, up $8,356 per student in real terms since 2002.”

In that same period, public school enrollment nationally increased by only 6.6 percent while total staff grew by 13.2 percent, the report continued. At the state level, staffing growth exceeded student growth in 39 of 50 states. “Much of this can be attributed to growth in non-teaching staff, which increased by 20 percent across states,” it added.

Finally and most discouraging, the study could find no consistent relationship between funding growth and outcomes across states.

If you have a high tolerance for the futility of human endeavor you might compare the Reason Foundation’s results to those of that Indiana Policy Review study a generation earlier. They found the same thing. Why? Because Indiana lawmakers were — and are —  unwilling to take two simple steps: 1) Give building principals ultimate authority to hire, fire and promote teachers; and 2) pay better teachers more.

In these last 20 years the statewide alliance of teacher unions and educational administrators that controls Indiana public education has blocked these and other common-sense reforms. Indiana law still imposes what doesn’t work: exclusive, mandatory representation of all teachers by unions. That same law prevents a school board from negotiating contract improvements with the union — an insane management situation.

We have the leadership we deserve, and the sorry proof is being played out in the unfulfilled lives of our students and the dead-end careers of their teachers. — tcl



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