NASHVILLE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday he's committed to improving the salaries of the state's teachers and plans to provide some degree of funding in his proposed budget to start the process.
The Republican governor began his annual budget hearings with agency leaders at the Capitol with the Education Department and talked about salaries.
Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman didn't provide specific numbers on what an increase for teachers might look like, saying he and the governor need to first see how the overall budget comes together and then explore "what's doable this year" for teachers.
Haslam said at a news conference last month that by the time he leaves office, he wants Tennessee's teacher salaries to have grown more than those in any other state. He and Huffman said at the time that the administration will review national state-by-state salary data each year to see that Tennessee's teacher salaries are competitive.
According to the latest data from the National Education Association, the average salary for classroom teachers nationwide is $56,383, compared with $48,289 in Tennessee.
Haslam told reporters on Tuesday that he's sticking by his words.
"We have an ongoing commitment with K-12 teachers," he said.
Jim Wrye, chief lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, said he's pleased the governor wants to increase teachers' pay because many of them have had to foot the bill for necessary school supplies.
"Since the downturn in 2008, teacher salaries have not kept up with inflation," Wrye said. "We're having to dig deeper into our pockets for classroom basics, like paper and crayons."
The discussion to increase teacher salaries comes amid continued criticism of education changes proposed by Huffman.
Earlier this week, the Williamson County Education Association issued a statement challenging the education commissioner's leadership, even though Huffman was lauded last week by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan for ideas that helped Tennessee fourth- and eighth-graders lead the nation in academic growth, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP
The president of the group didn't immediately return a phone call to The Associated Press on Tuesday, but The Tennessean reported the group is frustrated with what it calls "rapid-fire implementation of untested reform measures."
"WCEA believes true progress in education reform requires a measured, systematic approach," said group president Kevin King.
In September, a petition was signed by more than 50 Tennessee school superintendents who also raised concerns about Huffman's leadership, saying his office "has no interest in a dialogue" with local school leaders.
Teachers' groups have criticized Huffman for calling for changes to the minimum teacher salary schedule for new teachers, reducing steps in salary increases from 21 to four and eliminating incentives for doctorate degrees and post-master's training. They also oppose his proposal for tying teacher licenses to student test data.
And most recently, Huffman and the administration drew fire from the state's four largest school systems who say there are funding inequities in the state's school funding formula, or BEP.
Will Pinkston, budget and finance committee chairman of the Metro Nashville Board of Public Education, said one solution might be to fully fund the BEP, which has yet to be done.
"There can be other conversation from there," he said.
Huffman told reporters Tuesday the formula won't be changed for the upcoming fiscal year, "but we're having ongoing discussions about at what point in time does it make since to look at it."