Tennessee teacher pay proposal riles union

photo Gov. Bill Haslam answers a question during a news conference in this file photo.
Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

A teacher pay plan coming before the Tennessee Board of Education today drew fire Thursday from legislative Democrats and the state's largest group of educators.

House Democrats and the Tennessee Education Association blasted Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman's proposal to change the minimum salary schedule, which now rewards experience and advanced degrees.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, told reporters the plan will mean fewer pay increases over time and could drive educators from the field.

"I don't know that we can get career teachers anymore," Fitzhugh lamented.

Huffman fired back, accusing the critics of presenting "inaccurate information."

Gov. Bill Haslam defended the move Thursday evening, telling reporters the "key thing here is, unlike what the Democrats said, nobody is going backward [in pay]. State law doesn't allow that. What it's trying to do is let local education authorities make the decision if they want to have a differentiated pay structure."

In the past, Haslam said, "pay increases have all been dependent on things statistics show don't make much difference - having graduate degrees and thing like that."

Critics said the plan would reduce step increases from 21 to four and abolish incentives for post-master's training and doctoral degrees.

The administration argues the move will give local school systems more flexibility in how they pay teachers.

Huffman said the state has added more than $130 million for teacher salaries over the past three years.

"We will continue to look for ways to increase teacher pay, decrease state mandates and increase local control of school decisions," he added.

Democrats aren't the only ones concerned.

House Education Committee Vice Chairman John Forgety, R-Athens, asked State School Board Chairman Fielding Rolston in a June 12 letter not to adopt the changes today.

Forgety, a former McMinn County schools superintendent, cited concerns with the method for changing salary policy. Previous administrations and legislatures have been more collaborative on previous changes in teacher tenure and evaluations, he said.

"It now seems that the salary discussion has moved from state elected officials to an appointed policy-making board" that excludes "most of the groups which have been so supportive of education reform," he wrote.

WHAT'S NEXTThe Tennessee Board of Education will hold an agenda session at 10 a.m. and a voting session at 12:30 p.m. today at its offices, 525 Brick Church Park Drive, in Nashville. All times are CDT.

TEA lobbyist Jim Wrye told reporters the administration clearly isn't talking about cutting pay for current teachers.

"But if the state gets out of the business of telling systems, 'Look, you need to value these things, you need to pay these things,' what do you think is going to happen to those teachers' pay in the future?"

He said "there is a real possibility that many of these veteran teachers will not see a raise for many years to come."

Sara Heyburn, assistant commissioner for teachers and leaders, argues that a teacher's experience and education level have no correlation to how well students actually perform.

"We know that the current system we've set up does not have an impact on student achievement," she said.

Wrye and other educators strongly contest the state's findings.

State officials say their plan is permissive, allowing school systems to keep or change their current pay scales. Districts will have to come up with some sort of differentiated pay plan. Local school board could decide to pay more for higher test scores, or to teachers in hard-to-staff schools, or even based on the subjects or grade levels they teach.

Sandy Hughes, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, said complexities in the state's plan could mean an administrative nightmare for payroll and accounting staff.

"It will require a great deal of man-hours just trying to make sure everybody's paycheck is right," Hughes said. "It's not practical to implement without having to hire more central office staff."

And Hughes said differentiated pay plans are often intrinsically unfair because they apply only to certain groups of teachers.

"What if we said, 'OK, all our football coaches who win the first 10 games will get a $5,000 bonus?'" asked Hughes. "Is that fair to the English teacher or the math teacher or the social studies teacher? No."

School districts already are authorized under a 2007 law to offer differentiated pay. Hamilton County, for example, already pays certain teachers more for teaching in high-needs schools.

But Wrye argues that in a state where teacher pay is among the lowest nationally, Huffman is intent not on expanding the pool of money but simply redistributing it.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

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