NASHVILLE -- After nearly three years of demanding more from Tennessee public school teachers, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam vowed Thursday to pay them more by boosting their pay.
The governor, who is running for re-election next year, promised in a state Capitol news conference that educators' salaries would grow at the fastest percentage pace of any state in the nation by the time he leaves office.
"This is a long-term goal, and I think it is one of the most important ones we've taken on," Haslam said.
The move comes as the governor and his education commissioner, Kevin Huffman, come under increasing criticism from teachers as well as nearly half of the state's 137 school superintendents who recently signed a petition letter to Haslam which blasted Huffman.
Haslam was short on specifics when it comes to how many actual additional dollars would land in educators' pockets. That will be decided on a year-by-year basis in consultation with the General Assembly and school districts with an eye on what's going on in the 49 other states.
But he said it would be a "budget priority for him."
The most recent national data from the National Education Association shows the national average salary for instructional staff, which includes teachers and other certificated personnel including principals, at $58,315 versus $50,607 in Tennessee. In terms of classroom teachers, the national average is $56,383 compared to $48,289 for Tennessee. The state ranks 35th.
Attending Thursday's announcement were the heads of the Tennessee Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, and Professional Educators of Tennessee, two groups often in competition.
"I think it's great to take this opportunity to recognize teachers and appreciate all the good work that they do," said Gera Summerford, TEA's president.
But Summerford said as a result of previous Haslam changes that allow local districts to offer differentiated pay to educators, not everyone may benefit equally.
"It needs to be something that all educators have the opportunity to achieve," she said.
J.C. Bowman with PET said the $50,000 figures cited by Haslam on current pay "appear to include administrator positions and not just classroom teachers. Both he and Summerford want to know more.
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said he also has concerns, noting Haslam and Huffman have directly tied teacher pay to student achievement.
"Basing teacher pay on test scores ... is going to further strain the system, lower morale and detract from the progress we have made in Tennessee," he said in a news release.
Earlier, Huffman said teachers "deserve our gratitude for their work and their commitment. But I also know that too often we tend to use gratitude as a substitute for compensation, and gratitude only goes so far."
Sandy Hughes, president of the local union, the Hamilton County Education Association, said at first blush, the administration's announcement seemed like window dressing.
"My first thought is it's coming in an election year and they want to make teachers think they're going to raise salaries," Hughes said. "I question the timing."
And without specifics, it seems as though Haslam may be trying to just win over teachers.
"I think it sounds like political rhetoric," Hughes said.
Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith said he'll wait for details to emerge before passing judgment either way.
"I'll be interested to see further announcements regarding Governor Haslam's announcement on trying to improve teacher salaries," he said. "We'll wait and see."
The Hamilton County Board of Education voted last month to offer all school employees a recurring 3 percent raise in base salary as well as a one-time bonus of 1 percent.
But the governor said educators have performed well in response to tougher standards on students and themselves. The previously stated goal was making Tennessee the "fastest improving state in academic achievement by 2015." The state is on track to get there, he said.
Staff writer Kevin Hardy contributed to this report.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.