INDIANAPOLIS | The teacher shortage affecting hiring at Indiana schools — and districts across the country — has been attributed to everything from increased student testing and partisan politics, to higher standards required for new teachers and excessive retirements.
But region teachers note one key factor generally is missing from most analyses of the teacher shortage issue: pay.
Reggie Tisdale, a 24-year teacher in East Chicago public schools, said it's getting harder to convince someone who borrowed $100,000 for their college education to take a job where they'll only make $35,000 a year to start, and pay increases, when available, must primarily be based on student test scores.
"Of course you don't go into it for the money, you go for the love of the kids and working with children," Tisdale said. "But always in the past we knew that we could climb that 20-year increment ladder and one day you could possibly buy a home and have a family."
"Those days are now gone and that's, in my opinion, the biggest reason for this teacher shortage."
Veteran Valparaiso music educator Deb Porter agreed. She described the overall economic outlook for teachers as "grim."
"Before you might have started at $34,000 or $35,000 but you looked at the pay scale and you knew in 16 or 18 years you were going to be making $50,000 or $60,000," Porter said. "That no longer exists."
She said the 2011 state law limiting pay raises for years of service and a teacher's own education discourages people from entering or remaining in the profession, and often requires them to look at it as just a short-term experience instead of a long-term career because they can't afford to stay in the job.
"There's still a group of people who are going to be teachers no matter what...but those are fewer and farther between because teachers going into education now, women especially, they're looking at the very real possibility that they are major contributors to their family's economy," Porter said.
The effect of that turnover on student achievement can be significant because first- and second-year teachers inevitably make many mistakes, she said. Students who repeatedly are taught by novice educators may miss out on the more effective instruction a veteran teacher usually provides.
"If you're only going to do it for three, five, seven years are you really going to be latching on to professional development, are you really going to be concerned about making sure that you're the best you can be?" Porter asked. "There's a lot of mindset change that happens when you know you're only going to be there for two more years."
Indiana vs the rest
Compared to neighboring states, particularly Illinois and Michigan, Indiana teachers typically earn less than educators working elsewhere.
According to salary information compiled by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Education Association, a teacher's union, the average starting salary for an Indiana teacher is $34,696 a year, just shy of the national average of $34,935.
A first-year teacher in Illinois can expect to earn $37,166, but given the generally lower cost of living in Indiana the salaries still are considered roughly congruent.
Indiana teachers fall behind on salary the longer they teach, though, and aren't particularly well compensated for obtaining more training and education, such as a master's degree.
An experienced Indiana teacher with a bachelor's degree earns, on average, $42,900 a year. With a master's degree, the teacher would make $55,360.
In Illinois, the same teacher would be paid $45,660 with a bachelor's degree and $64,670 with a master's degree.
Michigan teachers similarly outearn Hoosier teachers. The Michigan starting salary is $35,901; with experience it grows to $47,260, and a teacher with a master's degree has an average salary of $64,130.
Ohio teachers also earn slightly more than Hoosiers at all experience levels, Wisconsin teachers are paid roughly the same, and teachers in Kentucky make about 10 percent less than in Indiana.
However, teachers generally work only in the state where they are licensed, because it's often a hassle to transfer their teaching license to a neighboring state.
For example, an Indiana teacher applying for an Illinois professional educator license must submit college transcripts that show 32 hours of coursework in their content area, pass Illinois' test of academic proficiency and applicable content-area tests, have experience as a student teacher or full-time teacher, and have completed coursework in teaching for special education and limited-English students.
Out-of-state teachers unable to meet those requirements either must take additional coursework until they are eligible or are limited to a provisional license valid for one year that only is renewable if the teacher is making progress toward a professional educator license, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
It's not known exactly how many Indiana residents teach in Illinois schools. None, however, teach in Illinois' largest district, Chicago Public Schools, because CPS teachers are required to live in the city limits.
Higher teacher salaries also are no guarantee that a state will not suffer a teacher shortage.
California teachers outearn even Illinois and Michigan teachers, taking home on average $41,259 to start, $62,010 with experience and $67,830 with a master's degree.
Yet, California started the school year this August with 21,000 teaching positions unfilled.
Shortage nearly a decade in the making
Most experts attribute the teacher shortage to an enrollment decline in teacher training programs, beginning in the 2008-09 Great Recession when students opted for business or other degrees more likely to lead to careers with higher wages.
In Indiana, licenses issued to new teachers fell 18.5 percent between 2009 and 2013, according to the Department of Education. California's enrollment in teacher training programs dropped 50 percent in the past five years.
Glenda Ritz, the Democratic state superintendent of public instruction, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg recently blamed school reforms enacted by Republican Gov. Mike Pence and the Republican-controlled Legislature for at least a portion of Indiana's teacher shortage.
"Our schools can't hire the teachers they need, because Gov. Pence has been working to undermine public schools and educators almost since the moment he took office," they said in a letter to Democratic supporters.
"Even as Indiana's teacher shortage worsens, Gov. Pence still hasn't learned voters want educating our kids to be a top priority. Instead he's spending millions on new doors for the state Capitol and signs for state office buildings."
Mark Lotter, spokesman for the State Board of Education to which Pence appoints a majority of members, said it's simplistic to blame Indiana's embrace of charter schools and private school vouchers for the state's teacher shortage, since many of Indiana's reforms are based on Florida's model and that state is doing just fine with teacher hiring.
He said Indiana's shortage likely is due to a combination of fewer students in the teacher training pipeline and a major increase in teacher retirements as Baby Boomers hit age 65.
For example, between 1990 and 2009, an average of 1,631 Indiana teachers retired each year, according to the Indiana Public Retirement System. Since 2010, an average of 4,169 Indiana teachers annually have put down the chalk.
State Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, who represents a portion of Northwest Indiana, said he believes teachers unions constantly are bad-mouthing education reforms to discourage new teachers from entering the field and then using the resulting teacher shortage for their own political and financial ends.
"It's the ramp-up to political silly season by a blindly partisan union who has never failed to exploit an opportunity, regardless of the truth," said Hershman, chairman of the Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee.
Gordon Hendry, an Indianapolis Democrat and Pence appointee to the State Board of Education, recently announced a plan to reduce Indiana's teacher shortage by financially encouraging superior college students to go into teaching.
His Next Generation Hoosier Educators Scholarship would pay full college tuition at any public Indiana university for top-ranked high school students who agree to teach for four years after graduating from college. Teaching at a D- or F-rated school would come with a $7,500 one-time bonus.
Hendry projects the state could support 500 students a year for $4.5 million, and after four years have 2,000 new, cream-of-the-crop teachers in Indiana classrooms. The plan requires legislative approval.
"Indiana should take a nonpartisan, forward-looking approach to attracting our most talented, high-achieving students to careers in the teaching profession," Hendry said.
"Outstanding teachers touch the lives of thousands of students and have a profound effect on our state and its future generations."