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This week marked just another boring Organization Day for the General Assembly, with the usual pro forma legislative housekeeping and ceremonial speeches…oh, wait.  Tuesday was different from the start, as thousands of teachers and education advocates rallied in and around the Statehouse for raising teacher salaries and cutting licensing and testing requirements.

‘Red for Ed’ dominated news from the legislature – until Speaker Brian Bosma dropped a bombshell towards the end of his remarks in the House chamber.  Speaker Bosma’s retirement in 2020 session means a leadership shake-up and marks the end of an era: With more than three decades in the House and tenure as the longest-serving Speaker in Indiana history, he’s played a pivotal role in every major public policy debate of the last generation and will leave an indelible stamp on today’s business climate.

We agreed with Speaker Bosma on many issues through the years, and even when we differed it was clear that he led with conviction and wielded his gavel with fairness and a deep commitment to the Hoosiers he served.  (And he’s looking to extend his legacy in public health and economic competitiveness in his last session – more on this later.)

Seeing Red, Thinking Green
The massive ‘Red for Ed’ turnout was certainly a ‘teachable moment’ for those who thought the teacher pay issue was solved by this year’s budget – progress towards higher salaries seems to earn an incomplete grade from many educators.

We support efforts to attract and retain great teachers with competitive compensation, especially in high-demand subject areas and to staff school districts facing unique needs.  That’s why we joined forces with Indianapolis Public Schools last year on an operational assessment to cut administrative costs, ‘right-size’ the district’s referendum request and assure voters that 100% of new operating revenues would go to teacher and principal pay raises.

We’re pleased to report these efforts are getting results: Last week, the IPS board approved more than $31M in raises over the next two years for teachers and support staff, translating into raises for some teachers of over $9,000 this year.

Starting teacher salaries will go up by more than $2,600 to $45,200 in 2019-2020, and the top-paid teachers will earn more than $80,000 this year and $90,000 in the 2020-21 school year.  It’s a big step forward, starting to reverse years of minimal or no pay increases and moving towards the goal of making IPS the employer of choice for talented teachers around the region and across the state.

Keep It Movin’
The action of the IPS board is great news but not the end of the story.  Continued work to identify and implement efficiencies across the district’s operations will be necessary to sustain salary increases and protect academic progress within a balanced budget that protects local taxpayers.

And while we’re proud of IPS and our partnership on behalf of parents and students across our city, education funding in Indiana is a unique mix of state and local finance, policymaking and oversight – and state tuition support is the primary source of K-12 operating budgets across Indiana.  So while there is fair debate over the role of the General Assembly versus school boards in setting salaries or targeting funding to teacher pay, clearly the Statehouse casts a long shadow over public education finance.

That’s why we’ll continue a ‘multiple choice’ approach to school funding: Working with local districts like IPS to drive more dollars to the classroom, supporting adequate state funding for education, pushing for  appropriate aid to high-poverty districts (complexity grants), and encouraging accountability with diverse learning options to make these investments pay off in preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s economy and job market.

Older & Wiser
Great teachers can inspire as they educate, getting their students excited about possibilities for the future.  But let’s face it – kids are kids, they don’t always think ahead and don’t always make the best choices.  Bad decisions and unhealthy habits by young people can lead to a lifetime of negative consequences.

That’s why we’ve pushed to raise the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21 (mirroring a similar effort at the federal level by Senator Todd Young); the Centers for Disease Control estimate that more than 90% of all smokers first try cigarettes as teenagers – raising the age can begin to curb Indiana’s high smoking rate (along with the more immediate disincentive of raising the state cigarette tax, which faces higher legislative hurdles).

We gained a powerful ally on ‘T21,’ when Speaker Bosma announced Tuesday that he would support moving the legal purchase age for tobacco (and vaping) products to 21.  Success on this issue would be another achievement among his decades of work to make Indiana a better place to do business.

Yes, youth tobacco use is a business issue and a public health challenge.  Indiana is among the states with the highest smoking rates, costing employers billions of dollars in added healthcare expenses and lost productivity every year.  We can’t sustain a healthy economy without a healthy labor force, and our smoking habits are undermining all our other human capital investments.

That’s why the Indy Chamber is part of the statewide ‘Raise It for Health’ coalition of corporate and civic groups, social service organizations and healthcare providers working to discourage smoking and vaping with age limitations and higher taxes (to support strategic investments in public health programs).

Vaping is a more recent addition to this agenda, as a gateway that tends to lure young people into smoking (as well as posing its own health risks).  As we finalize next year’s legislative agenda, we’ll be supporting tax parity at the point of sale on e-liquids and a potential prohibition on flavored products that tend to target underage users.

More than 11,000 Hoosiers die every year from tobacco-related causes, as we grapple with rates of chronic respiratory and cardiovascular disease higher than the nation.  It’s a staggering toll in human loss and suffering, alongside the economic cost to employers in worker absenteeism, days lost and careers cut short by chronic illness, and higher healthcare costs borne by businesses and individuals (and all taxpayers) alike.  Speaker Bosma’s support on the age issue adds new momentum to the cause, and we’ll keep pushing for comprehensive solutions for this public health and workforce productivity crisis.

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