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Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman

NASHVILLE - Tennessee teachers will see a new state minimum pay schedule that places far less emphasis on their experience and advanced degrees after the State Board of Education on Friday gave final approval to the controversial Haslam administration proposal.

The plan eliminates most step increases and does away with mandatory adjustments after a teacher's 11th year rather than 21st year, as now.

The 6-3 vote drew groans and angry grumbling from dozens of teachers who packed the board meeting. Board member and former teacher Vernita B. Justice, of Chattanooga, voted no.

Board members also unanimously approved a "differentiated" pay schedule. Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said it boosts the state's 136 school districts' ability to offer merit pay, hiring bonuses for teachers in difficult-to-fill subjects or low-performing schools and other areas.

And the board approved on first reading a Huffman plan to make teachers recertify every six years instead of once a decade. It also makes it tougher for teachers to win and maintain certification, tying the process to student achievement and evaluations.

Officials predict 100 to 200 underperforming teachers will lose their licenses each year under the new plan.

Huffman and board Chairman Fielding Rolston lashed out at critics of the minimum salary schedule. They said critics misled the public by saying it will cut current teacher pay.

"I personally have been pretty disappointed to see a lot of misinformation," Huffman said, adding that state law does not allow a district to reduce an individual teacher's salary.

And, he said, the state has added $130 million over the last three years, so the budget for teacher salaries is larger than ever.

The proposed minimum salary schedule "does not tell districts how to pay teachers," Huffman said. "It gives almost complete autonomy to local districts to decide how to pay teachers."

School districts still will be able to develop their own pay schedules so long as they meet the state's minimum. Pay in nearly every Tennessee district now exceeds the state scale, officials said.

In interviews this week, Tennessee Education Association officials were careful to say that flattening adjustments for experience and advanced degrees would not cut current salaries.

However, they claimed the changes would lessen annual increases over time. They also predicted some school systems will fit their own policies to the state changes.

After the meeting, Huffman rebutted that notion, saying, "We have to have a little confidence in our local schools and local systems."

Comparing plans

TEA Vice President Barbara Gray, a Shelby County teacher, told the board educators have "serious concern" the plan "could seriously damage teaching careers and increase the inequity between the rich and the poor school systems."

Teachers fear "they may also never see another raise," she said.

The current pay schedule lists minimum salary levels from the first through the 20th years at five levels: bachelor's degrees, graduate degrees, master's degree plus, education specialist and doctorate degrees.

The new plan collapses the 21 minimum pay levels to four. Compensation for degrees goes down to two -- a bachelor's degree and anything beyond that.

Teacher Sandy Hughes, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, said the new plan "shows a disrespect and a devaluing of education in general."

"I have two young men who paid over $90,000 to go to school at Vanderbilt to get doctorates. Why did they do that? Because they were hoping to increase their salary," Hughes said.

If Hamilton County changed its minimum salary schedule, those teachers and others would be hurt, she said.

Hughes said if she had just 10 years' teaching experience, "I would go ahead and hunt for another job tomorrow, one that promise me security."

Hamilton County already offers differentiated pay, she noted, but it's funded through state or federal grants or through private foundations.

"We don't fund it by robbing Peter to pay Paul," she said.

She's also suspicious that changes in teacher certification are an effort to "move older teachers out of buildings because again, there's no respect for teachers with experience."

Huffman said the state recertifies an ineffective teacher -- as measured by test data -- on average once a day. He also said a departmental study found that experience has little impact on teacher effectiveness beyond five to seven years.

He and other state officials argued that together the moves would help heighten the prestige of the teaching profession, by not only requiring more, but also better compensating high performers.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at or 423-757-6249.