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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.

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Education Featured

House Dems, TEA Blast Huffman’s Teacher Pay Proposal

Proposed changes to the way Tennessee public school teachers are paid have state House Democrats and teachers’ unions bristling.

During a press event at the state Capitol, party leaders on Thursday blasted a proposal from Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration that would alter Tennessee’s minimum teacher salary schedule and, according to opponents, drastically reduce the amount teachers earn over the span of their careers.

State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman is set to present the plan to State Board of Education Friday, after which the board could vote to approve it.

Critics’ concerns about the plan include the reduction of seniority-based pay categories from the current 21 steps to just four possible raises over the course of a career. There would also be fewer pay increases available for teachers who earn advanced degrees.

Jim Wrye, a representative for the state’s main teachers’ union, the Tennessee Education Association, described the proposal as a “fundamental gutting of that state minimum salary schedule.”

“We think that it’s going to increase inequities,” Wrye told reporters. “We think that it’s going to cause mid-career teachers to see no pay raises for long periods of time.

“Requiring a minimum for a salary has a real way of leveraging [state education] money to make sure that teachers across the state at least make a middle class wage,” he said.

Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh expressed concern during the press conference that the revised pay schedule would make it harder for the state to attract talented teachers. “We break our commitment to teachers by doing this and we really put a chilling effect on recruitment of teachers,” the Ripley Democrat said. “Lord, we don’t pay them enough in the first place…I don’t know that we can get career teachers anymore.”

Fitzhugh also argued that the plan would discourage teachers from pursuing advanced degrees and career development training.

“There will be no more, to a great degree, incentive for teachers to get an advanced degree,” said Fitzhugh. “And what are you saying to our children? That advanced degree is no longer important. Going into higher education on an elevated basis doesn’t matter any more because we don’t even think it matters when your teacher gets a master’s degree or a doctorate degree. We’re not going to pay him or her any more for that.”

But that logic doesn’t quite fly with at least one Republican lawmaker. Reached by phone Thursday, GOP House Caucus Chair Glen Casada of Franklin told TNReport, “I know in the business world, you don’t get paid because you have an M.B.A behind your name.”

Casada said he did have some “reservations” about possible reductions in teachers’ minimum earning potential but echoed the line often touted by Republican education reform advocates that bonuses and raises should be awarded based purely on measured performance rather than experience or education.

Fitzhugh himself addressed that point Thursday. “I’m all for paying for productivity, paying for excellence, but you don’t do that at the expense of teachers, initially, by lowering their pay,” he said.

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Education NewsTracker

Senate Finance OKs Retooled Charter Authorizer Proposal

After weeks of postponements and concerns from both sides of the aisle, the state Senate Finance, Ways & Means Committee voted Wednesday to substantially overhaul a contentious charter school bill.

The original plan laid out in Senate Bill 830, carried by Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, would have created a stand-alone, state-appointed board with the power to overrule local school systems who denied applications to open new charter schools. But after members of the Finance Committee raised questions about the roughly $240,000 price tag for the new board and the increased bureaucracy it would create, Gresham, with the help of committee member and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, introduced an amendment that would move the charter authorizer function under the state Board of Education.

The changes to the measure proved to be enough to sway all but one of the GOP committee members.

But Democrats, along with Maryville Republican Doug Overbey still didn’t lend their support. Outstanding concerns included the bill’s limited focus on counties that have struggling, “priority schools,” and the lack of any rules to make sure that new charter schools would be located in underserved neighborhoods and not more distant, well off communities.

While Gresham ultimately managed to prevail and push the changes through, she was less than cheerful, heatedly telling reporters after the vote that the concerns raised by opponents during the hour-plus of discussion on the bill were outmoded.

“I think what you heard a lot of was people talking about a system of education that is an old way of looking at things. We have to be, at all times, focused on children… We’re not here to preserve a system that serves adults,” Gresham said. She added that, while not perfect, the amended legislation is “a way to get there, it’s another tool to get there and we are going to get there…as long as you focus on children and not yourself.”

The House was scheduled to vote on their version of the bill earlier in the day, Wednesday, but they put it off, presumably to see how the Senate committee acted. Given the lack of opposition the legislation has seen so far in the lower chamber and the blessing of high ranking Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee, it appears likely that the GOP supermajority probably has the votes to bat the bill home.