State Ed Board Votes to Overhaul Teacher Pay System

The Tennessee State Board of Education voted Friday to overhaul the state’s minimum payment requirements for public school teachers.

The new payment plan, presented to the board by Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and passed by a vote of 6-3, includes a 1.5 percent across-the-board increase to teachers’ minimum salaries, but opponents argue that changes to the pay schedule structure will end up severely limiting teachers’ earning potential over the course of their entire careers.

Under the current system, teachers receive up to 20 small salary bumps during their careers as they gain seniority and can also move up pay brackets for completing advanced degrees and training. The new system reduces the schedule to just a few different categories, leaving it largely up to local districts to decide how raises are awarded.

The board passed the plan over the public objections of Tennessee’s major teachers’ union along with many Democrats in the State Legislature. At the center of the debate is the way teacher pay categories are divided. During the SBOE meeting Friday, Commissioner Huffman and members of his staff laid out the details of their proposal while several dozen union members with the Tennessee Education Association packed the conference room to show their opposition.

Tennessee Education Association Vice President Barbara Gray was allowed to address the state board on their behalf and called on SBOE members to postpone action on the Department of Education plan.

While ostensibly an opportunity to debate and possibly modify the proposal, discussion was kept minimal.

Gray contended that the current minimum pay schedule was set up to “foster equity in teacher salaries among school districts and to provide professional pay for hard-working educators.”

“The overall effect of the changes proposed,” Gray told the board “is a substantial lowering of the state requirement for teacher salary,” a point that Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman directly contradicted.

“Tennessee law forbids any district from cutting an individual teacher’s salary; it’s actually not allowable for a district to cut an individual teacher’s salary,” Huffman said. “Salaries will not go down,” he continued “I don’t understand how to be more clear about that.”

Huffman and board chairman Fielding Rolston, a vocal supporter of the alterations, repeatedly dismissed the assertion that lifetime earnings might decline under the new plan  — drawing boos and whispers from TEA union members — and suggested that arguments otherwise were deliberate distortions of the truth.

In his opening remarks, Huffman said he was “disappointed to see a lot of misinformation about the salary proposal,” while Rolston was less reserved, telling fellow board members “It’s extremely unfortunate that some of the misleading information, the inflammatory information that has been distributed is out there because I think it has led to a lot of anxiety on the part of teachers that is totally inappropriate.”

In a seemingly conciliatory gesture that proved little consolation for opponents, the board ultimately chose to include non-binding language to the proposal they voted on saying the new system could be re-evaluated in the future if the results were negative.

The changes to the teacher pay schedule come as an example of the larger push by GOP education reform advocates, including many in the Haslam administration and the General Assembly, to increased local district control and emphasize teacher performance over experience or advanced training.

Speaking to reporters following Friday’s meeting, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman stressed both points.

“For too long in education, we have operated with the presumption that everybody performs at the same level, everybody is the same, there is no marketplace for people. Those are fallacies. Some teachers perform at a higher level than others,” Huffman said.

“Some folks would like to see a system continue that says ‘we’re going to treat you all the same no matter any of the other factors, we’re going to pay you exactly the same,’” the commissioner continued. “And we believe that school districts should be able to create systems that say ‘You know, not everybody’s the same. In our district, we have a challenge with X; we would like to fix X and use compensation as part of that.’”

The new minimum pay system is set to begin taking effect in the 2013-14 school year.