Raising Teacher Pay a Top Budget Concern for Haslam Administration

Tennessee will make raising teacher salaries a budget priority, Gov. Bill Haslam announced Thursday afternoon at a press conference before the state’s Teacher of the Year celebration.

“We’re asking our students to be the fastest improving in the nation in education achievement, and the data is showing that we’re making real progress,” Haslam said. “Teachers are the single most important factor in student achievement, and higher accountability for teachers and proven results should be met with better rewards.”

Annually, the state sets a minimum salary schedule that takes into account a teacher’s level of experience and education. Raising the minimum schedule is what Haslam pledged to make a chief budget concern.

For 2011-12, a 1.6 percent salary increase was provided on the state minimum salary schedule, according to the National Education Association. Since Haslam assumed office in 2011, the state’s commitment totaled more than $130 million in new, recurring funds for teacher salaries, which bumped up the state minimum by 2.6 percent for 2010-2012.

In 2010 Tennessee ranked 44th in the nation, paying teachers an average of $45,891. By 2012, the state had risen to 40th with teacher salaries averaging $47,082. The national average is slightly more than $55,000.

“For far too long our state has ranked near the bottom when it came to educational achievement,” Haslam said.

But, as he pointed out, the state’s public school students have been showing demonstrable improvements on Tennessee Comprehensive Program scores.

Haslam said the TCAP gains have come without cutting education funding, and the time has come for teachers to reap some rewards. “We are committed to investing in our educators and working in partnership with the General Assembly and our local school districts to examine where we are every year, track our progress against other states and make investment decisions that will move Tennessee forward,” said the governor.

Haslam credited Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman with pushing to make Tennessee the “fastest improving state in the country in academic achievement.” Haslam said it only makes sense that if  “the teachers are being held more accountable and they are producing better results — and that’s undeniable in Tennessee — then it is our obligation to also have the fastest increasing teachers’ salaries in the country.”

Over the past several months Huffman has increasingly become the target of criticism from disgruntled educators and resentful local school administrators who’ve grown frustrated with his perceived take-no-prisoners style of implementing contentious education reform initiatives.

On Thursday, Huffman appeared to be trying to salve some of the chafing. But soothing words aren’t always enough, he acknowledged; the perseverance of dedicated teachers should be acknowledged in tangible fashion.

“Too often, we tend to use gratitude as a substitute for compensation. And gratitude only goes so far,” said Huffman. “We know from national teacher salary data that teacher pay in Tennessee has lagged the national average for many years. And fixing this is not going to happen overnight. It requires a long-term commitment to growing teacher pay.”

Just how fast the salaries will rise was left unspecified. “For us it will be a year-to-year deal,” Haslam said when asked to estimate. “I promise that we will lead the nation in gains in teacher pay.”

House Speaker Beth Harwell, who with a number of other Republican state lawmakers flanked the governor for the announcement, said she was “very pleased” with the gist of the vow.

“It certainly makes clear that he is rewarding teachers for doing a good job. We’re requiring more of teachers and in turn we are going to pay them better,” she said.

Harwell said she’s hopeful that the revenue the state collects from taxpayers will continue to improve so that boosting education spending won’t come from cutting other programs.

“We’re in a good position right now, we’ve actually been able to cut taxes and restore our rainy-day fund, and I predict we will have the money necessary to give a pay increase to teachers this year,” said Harwell.

The governor flatly rejected the possibility of Tennesseans paying higher taxes to pay teachers higher salaries. “There will not be a tax increase,” Haslam said.

Haslam said his administration is in the early stages now of gathering input from state agencies for writing next year’s budget.

The governor’s promise is admirable, Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerford said later. She added, though, that she’s wanting to see the details.

“It’s positive to reward teachers. It’s a worthy cause. I just hope it is something that is attainable by all teachers,” she said, adding she has hope the governor will put forth an across-the-board increase, not tie the increase to performance.

Franklin teacher Laurie Mauldin, who attended the press conference as a finalist for Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year, echoed Summerford’s hesitation.

“I’m a math teacher. I want the facts and figures before I get too excited,” she said. “I do appreciate the support.”

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, noted that a lot of things can happen to any kind of proposal before it gets the final OK from the Legislature. “We want to focus on what’s best for Tennessee and what’s best for Tennessee students,” she said. “We need to look at the pros and cons and develop a plan.”

In principle, though, Gresham said she fully supports the idea of paying teachers more to continue improving.

“This is about higher expectations for our children (and) the higher expectations that we have for our teachers,” said Gresham. “We can’t do what we were doing before. We’ve got to get better and we will get better.”

Michelle Willard and Mark Engler contributed to this story.