Snail’s Pace

The Tennessee State Board of Education has set the state’s minimum teacher salary at $38,000 for the upcoming school year. That’s $49 more than the current average minimum salary, according to a story in Chalkbeat.

While the overall boost in minimum teacher pay is certainly welcome news, what’s interesting is to examine the pace of change in teacher pay over time.

As the Chalkbeat piece notes, the average teacher pay in Tennessee overall is $51,349.

Here’s why that’s so fascinating. Back in 2014, the state’s BEP Review Committee issued a report calling on the state to fund teacher salaries by way of the BEP at a level equivalent to the actual state average salary. That average? $50,116. So, the average now is just a bit over $1200 more than the average in 2014. In other words, teacher pay in Tennessee is creeping up at a snail’s pace. And, of course, teacher pay in our state is still below the Southeastern average (about $2000 below).

As Chalkbeat notes:

The improvement comes as Tennessee lags Southern and national averages for both starting pay and overall salaries. The state is also bracing for a wave of retirements and struggling to secure teachers for hard-to-staff areas such as special education and classes for students learning to speak English.

recent analysis by the Southern Regional Education Board shows Tennessee’s average educator salary in 2018-19 trailed half of the region’s states, including in border states like Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia.

What’s unfortunate about this situation is this: Tennessee can actually afford to make a huge investment in teachers and schools. We have a $2 billion surplus this year alone!

We could afford to push starting teacher pay above $40,000 for all teachers in the state. We could afford to give every single teacher a significant (10%) or more raise this year. We could dramatically increase the per pupil expenditures.

But, we’re doing none of those things. Gov. Lee’s budget reflects a lack of imagination and a refusal to dream of what is possible. Instead, he’s content to continue the status quo of underfunded schools and underpaid teachers.

As Chalkbeat further notes, it’s not clear how much of this raise will reach teachers:

The $2,000 bump in base pay doesn’t mean all teachers will see a noticeable pop in their paychecks, though.

Districts have flexibility over how to use state funds toward teacher compensation, so it’s uncertain how much of Tennessee’s 4% increase will trickle down to teachers who are paid more than the state minimum.

Because of disagreements on the adequacy of state funding, districts have hired about 10,000 teachers beyond what the state’s formula provides. Any increase could get spread across those salaries too. Districts also could opt to use next year’s increase to hire more staff or improve benefits.

Lee has claimed to support teachers and teacher pay, as Chalkbeat notes:

Early in his administration, Lee vowed to make Tennessee the best state in America to be a teacher, but pandemic-related budget uncertainties and cuts delayed increases planned for the 2020-21 school year.

The reality, though, is that Lee has not invested seriously in schools in spite of a significant state surplus:

“The budget passed by the General Assembly is disappointing when we have a historic opportunity to get Tennessee out of the bottom five in education funding. With a record revenue surplus and hundreds of millions unappropriated, this was the time to stop underfunding our schools.

There were bills to provide for more nurses, counselors, RTI specialists and social workers that our students need today and moving forward to meet their mental and academic challenges cause by the pandemic and the problems of chronic underfunding. Instead, we saw a trust fund set up that will cover barely a fraction of the needs years down the road.  

Lee’s commitment to putting just about everything ahead of funding schools and paying teachers may remind some of the previous governor, another guy named Bill who just couldn’t see fit to invest deeply in schools despite making a lot of promises.

Gov. Bill Haslam tweeted on October 3, 2013: “Teachers are the key to classroom success and we’re seeing real progress.  We want to be the fastest improving state in teacher salaries.”

Instead, in 2014:

Haslam is balancing the state budget by denying promised raises to teachers and state employees and ditching his proposed increases to higher education.

Tennessee leaders do a lot of talking when it comes to investing in schools. “Fastest-improving” “Best place to be a teacher.” The reality is that teacher pay and overall investment in schools is moving at a snail’s pace. In fact, a recently released analysis shows that Tennessee invests less in public education relative to taxable resources than any other state in the nation.

I will note once again that this year would be the easiest in decades to invest in public schools – a $2 billion surplus is instead being used for tax cuts and to boost the state’s already overflowing savings account.

I would also note that every time the budget situation seems even a little tough, funding for schools is the first on the chopping block. Good times, bad times, more money, less money – it doesn’t matter. The last decade has made abundantly clear that Tennessee’s policymakers are not at all interested in paying for schools or investing in the teachers who make them work.

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The Lowest in the Nation

Tennessee has one of the lowest overall tax burdens in the United States. While that may be a positive in some ways, it can mean less overall revenue available for public investments. However, just because our tax burden is relatively low doesn’t mean we can’t make smart choices. Policymakers could dedicate significant portions of that revenue to high return public goods – like our schools.

Instead, they just don’t.

According to a newly-released report from Education Week, Tennessee spends just 2.9% of all taxable resources on public education. That’s the lowest rate of any state in the nation.

In fact, the report notes that Tennessee ranks 43rd in the nation in terms of investment in public schools. The Quality Counts report produced by Education Week also gives an overall grade on school funding based on inputs such as equity, percent of resources spent, total funding, and percent of students who receive funding at or above the national median average. Tennessee’s grade? A D+. While we receive an A for funding equity, we get an F just about everywhere else.

And, don’t get too excited about that A in equity. We are merely equitably distributing a terribly small piece of pie.

Here’s the deal: Tennessee’s public schools are underfunded by $1.7 billion. We have policymakers, including our governor, who simply are not interested in investing in schools.

Tennessee policymakers, who recently adjourned their legislative session, could have paid for at least a third of the school funding shortfall with JUST the April surplus. Of course, that would assume these lawmakers are serious when they say they want to fully fund schools.

To be clear, making even a $600 million down payment on the necessary investments in schools would leave the state with a surplus approaching $1.4 billion and three months left in the budget year.

Tennessee has one of the lowest tax burdens in the nation. We have a budget surplus that is of historic proportions. We could fully fund our public schools and still have hundreds of billions of dollars leftover. This, then, is not a decision about “keeping taxes low” or about fiscal responsibility. It is, instead, a decision about denying the best possible education to our state’s children.

A budget is, at its core, a policy document. Our public policy in Tennessee is clear: Public schools are not a public good worth funding. This has been true for years and Gov. Lee is merely continuing this sad tradition.

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Memphis Teachers to See Pay Raise

Thanks in large part to federal stimulus money, teachers in Shelby County will see a raise and the district plans to build new schools and renovate additional buildings if the County Commission signs off on the proposed budget unanimously adopted by the School Board.

Chalkbeat has more:

Shelby County Schools board members unanimously approved a proposed budget of $2.19 billion Tuesday night, an increase of nearly 60 percent over last year.

Highlights of this year’s budget include five additional prekindergarten classes throughout the district, more money for custodial services, new literacy programs, money for proposed new schools and renovations, and raises for certified and noncertified employees.

The starting salary for teachers will increase about 7% from $43,000 to $45,965, and the maximum salary will rise about 16% from $73,000 to $84,445. The new max salary will raise the salary cap on teachers who have graduate degrees and seniority.

The move in Memphis follows the announcement of a budget in Nashville that will mean teachers there will see an average pay raise of around $7000.

Both cities are using federal stimulus dollars to meet budgeting needs.

Of course, all of this is happening while the state is both sitting on a surplus expected to exceed $2 billion and also seeking to rapidly expand charter schools.

While the State of Tennessee has a record surplus, Gov. Lee and lawmakers have refused to make significant new state investments in public education.

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April Showers

Erik Schelzig in the Tennessee Journal’s On the Hill blog notes that Tennessee’s April revenues were $600 million more than the budgeted estimate.

Go ahead, read that again. In one month, the state collected $600 million more than planned.

Here’s more from Schelzig:

Tennessee’s general fund revenue collections were nearly $600 million above estimates in April, bringing the state’s surplus to $1.9 billion through the first nine months of the budget year.

So, with three months left in the fiscal year, the state is nearly $2 billion ahead of where it planned to be. Even if the surpluses drop off, the state is well on its way to a surplus significantly in excess of $2 billion.

To put this in perspective, the state is $1.7 billion behind where it should be in terms of funding public schools according to a bipartisan legislative commission.

For further perspective, the April surplus alone is three times what Gov. Bill Lee allocated in new education funding for the entire 2021-22 fiscal year.

Tennessee policymakers, who recently adjourned their legislative session, could have paid for at least a third of the school funding shortfall with JUST the April surplus. Of course, that would assume these lawmakers are serious when they say they want to fully fund schools.

To be clear, making even a $600 million down payment on the necessary investments in schools would leave the state with a surplus approaching $1.4 billion and three months left in the budget year.

When all is said and done for the year, it is likely the entire $1.7 billion education funding deficit could be made up and the state would have half a billion dollars or more for savings and other expenses or projects.

For further clarity, not a single Tennessee taxpayer would see any tax increase if schools were funded from this surplus. In fact, it is very likely that a state investment in schools that would make up for the current funding shortfall would actually help local governments keep property taxes low.

This year, groups that typically stay out of the school funding fight like the Nashville Public Education Foundation and the League of Women Voters got involved and urged Lee and lawmakers to make use of this historic surplus to make significant new investments in public education. Those calls, of course, were ignored.

We often hear Tennessee policymakers say they want our state’s schools to be the best in the nation. No doubt, your own lawmaker has probably told you school funding is among their top priorities. However, when there was a giant surplus and the ability to make a huge investment in our schools without raising taxes one cent, these same lawmakers simply walked away. They walked away from our public schools, our students, and our teachers.

In times of tight budgets or when funding schools means raising taxes, it may be understandable that the state is cautious when it comes to investment in public education. However, when a single month’s surplus is $600 million and the overall revenue picture is historic in terms of the excess cash available, there is simply no excuse for not investing in education. The only answer at this point is that lawmakers and our Governor just don’t support our schools.

Tennessee consistently ranks near the bottom in the nation when it comes to school funding. We have an historic opportunity to change that. And, we have policy leaders who just aren’t interested.

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What We Always Knew

A story out of Maury County highlights the education disparities we all know about. It also makes clear the problem of inequality is societal and systemic. It’s something we can conveniently ignore when school is in session because we know then all the kids are being fed and watched and loved. We aren’t forced to see the impacts of wage stagnation, wealth consolidation, and a lack of access to health care.

Here’s more from the Columbia Daily Herald:

“It took this crisis to realize that we are working on two very different dynamics in our districts,” Jennifer Enk, president of the education association, told members of the Maury County Board of Education during an online board meeting this month. “Going forward, this is something that our state and our local [district] really has to look at.”

She said the ongoing stay-at-home order has shown that students’ access to the internet and the devices to access it dramatically differs across the county.

After encouraging the school district to continue offering stipends to local educators who prepare work packets for students, Enk recommends incoming funds from the federal government be used to “equal the playing field” for the county’s students.

Maury County Superintendent of Schools Chris Marczak previously told The Daily Herald that in the northern portion of the county, in the surrounding Spring Hill area, about 10% of the school district’s students live in a home without internet. In Columbia, the county seat located in the center of the region, 24% of the school districts students don’t have internet at home.

It’s not just internet access, of course. There are wide disparities in access housing, food, and health care. A report published last year noted:


High concentrations of poverty, not racial segregation, entirely account for the racial achievement gap in U.S. schools, a new study finds.


The research, released Monday, looked at the achievement gap between white students, who tend to have higher scores, and black and Hispanic students, who tend to have lower scores. Researchers with Stanford University wanted to know whether those gaps are driven by widespread segregation in schools or something else.


They found that the gaps were “completely accounted for” by poverty, with students in high-poverty schools performing worse than those from schools with children from wealthier families.

So, while policymakers create plans focused on how much time kids are in school buildings and how to ensure they get to take tests, the real problems remain ignored.

Meanwhile, privatizing predators are on the prowl, ready to use the COVID-19 pandemic to open the doors to MORE taxpayer resources with little oversight or accountability.

Instead of trying to line the pockets of wealthy edu-profiteers, Tennessee policymakers should move forward with solutions that address the underlying challenges:

Addressing poverty would mean providing access to jobs that pay a living wage as well as ensuring every Tennessean had access to health care. Our state leads the nation in number of people working at the minimum wage. We lead the nation in medical bankruptcies. We continue to refuse Medicaid expansion and most of our elected leaders at the federal level are resisting the push for Medicare for All.

Yes, COVID-19 has highlighted inequality in our schools and beyond. It’s also highlighted the willingness of our top policymakers to simply walk by on the other side while their neighbors suffer.

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Coronavirus and School Funding in Nashville

$100 million. That’s how much the already struggling Nashville school district is being asked to cut in the wake of the economic challenges created by the COVID-19 outbreak. The Tennessean has more:

Mayor John Cooper has asked Nashville schools to explore ways to potentially cut up to $100 million from its current budget as the coronavirus continues to take a toll on the city’s revenue collections.

As non-essential businesses remain closed and Nashville residents are spending less time outside, city officials are forecasting a $200 million to $300 million shortfall in expected taxes and other revenue for the current fiscal year. 

The potential budget cuts come even as Gov. Bill Lee insisted on $41 million in state funding for his voucher scheme while cutting funds sent to districts for teacher compensation.

Teachers in Nashville already lag behind those in other districts when it comes to pay.

It’s not clear where MNPS will find room for cuts, but based on past actions, it seems likely some savings would be realized by moving more students to virtual schools. It also seems likely entire programs could be reduced or eliminated.

This difficult climate is happening in a state that clearly has yet to learn the lessons of the Great Recession. Tennessee is at least $1.7 billion behind where it should be to adequately fund schools, according to a report from the bipartisan legislative study group known as TACIR.

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100% for Charters, 4% for Teachers

Last year, Governor Bill Lee doubled the charter school slush fund while only offering a pittance to public school teachers. This year, he’s pulling a similar trick, again doubling the charter school slush fund — from $12 million to $24 million — while offering teachers a paltry 4% increase in the BEP salary number (which means an actual raise of about 2%).

Lee’s 2020-21 budget includes $24 million in funding for charter school facilities. This is a 100% improvement over the 2019-2020 budget. Simultaneously, Lee is touting a 4% increase in BEP funding for teacher salaries. This means an actual raise of less than 2% for most teachers. Even if you assume a net gain of 4%, you get a 70 cent an hour raise.

Let’s be clear: Governor Lee prioritizes charter schools over Tennessee’s public school teachers. His last two budgets make that plain.

It’s also worth noting that Lee has made NO effort to improve BEP funding even as the state’s own Department of Education indicates we are 9000 teachers short of proper funding:


In Tennessee, classroom size requirements have forced districts to hire more than 9,000 teachers beyond what the BEP provides to pay for their salaries, according to a statewide analysis presented by the Department of Education in December to the BEP Review Committee.

So, we’re at a minimum of $500 million short of properly funding our schools and Lee’s proposal is to give the teachers we have a 2% raise. No word on improving the BEP. No word on a significant salary boost for existing teachers. Just 2% for teachers (4% in BEP funds), and another 100% increase for charter schools.

Could Gov. Lee’s priorities be more clear?

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Faison Pushing for Teacher Pay Raise

House Republican Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison of Cosby has indicated he’ll be pushing for a significant pay raise for Tennessee teachers when the legislature reconvenes in 2020. WJHL has more:


“Our teachers are some of the hardest-worked people in Tennessee and I definitely see a raise coming in,” says House Republican Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison who was voted into the leadership position this past August.


Few doubt the K-12 teachers’ low pay compared to other states, but Representative Faison says the issue is especially acute in those districts away from urban areas.


“Our teachers in rural Tennessee are struggling,” said Faison in a recent interview. “If you are a single parent and you are a teacher and you have two kids, that’s like poverty wages.”

A recent analysis indicates that over the last 10 years, Tennessee has seen inflation-adjusted revenue growth of 7%. Over that same time period, teacher pay is down by 2.6%. That’s not surprising, given that Tennessee receives an “F” on a rating of funding effort for schools according to the Education Law Center.

In fact, Think Tennessee highlighted two important numbers relative to school funding in our state:

So, we’ve got some work to do — both in teacher pay and in overall investment in schools.

Back in 2014, I wrote about the state’s broken school funding formula, the BEP. The fact is, it’s still broken today. The solution propose then would also work now:


There’s an easy fix to this and it has been contemplated by at least one large school system in the state. That fix? Moving the BEP instructional component to the state average. Doing so would cost just over $500 million. So, it’s actually NOT that easy. Another goal of those seeking greater equity is moving the BEP instructional match from 70% to 75%, essentially fulfilling the promise of BEP 2.0. Doing so would cost at least $150 million.

The state should absolutely make a significant investment in teacher pay in 2020. We can afford it, with billions of dollars in surpluses coming in over the last five years. Frankly, we can’t afford NOT to do it. Ignoring the problem will just further exacerbate a growing teacher shortage.


For the past five years Tennessee has been running huge revenue surpluses as education needs go unmet. Over this five-year span the state collected nearly $3 billion more in general fund revenue than it anticipated. Last year alone the state general fund had a $580 million surplus. These are millions that could have gone to classrooms. 

Combining an improvement in teacher pay at a level of 5% or more with a move toward full funding of BEP 2.0 (a cost of some $500 million) would go a long way toward giving Tennessee teachers both the pay and resources they need. We have the money. The only question is will lawmakers like Faison find the collective political will to make the investment.

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Buildings Matter

While Governor Bill Lee’s administration distributes money to charter schools by way of a capital slush fund, schools in Shelby County and across the state are struggling to maintain infrastructure. More on the current challenges in Shelby County from Chalkbeat:

This week, when temperatures in Memphis dipped to an unseasonably chilly 20 degrees, his first two classes had no heat. The problem was partially caused by a gas leak that led to an early dismissal Tuesday, but Scott said cold classrooms are common. Walking into a classroom with no heat, “I could feel this fresh coldness like a window had been opened.”

Building conditions impact student outcomes

Studies have shown that conditions such as cold classrooms can affect student learning. One study found that poor building conditions can lead to higher rates of frequent student absences. Another found that students in deteriorating buildings score 5 to 17 points lower on standardized tests than students in newer facilities. Several studies, including two in Tennessee, show that students learn more when they are in newer facilities.

The report on infrastructure challenges in Shelby County comes on the heels of another report about lead in water at schools across Tennessee.

It’s absolutely clear that the State of Tennessee needs to make significant investments in our schools. It’s also clear that legislative leaders and Governor Lee have shown zero interest in making that happen. Instead, the Plaid Privatizer seems content to push an agenda of disruption while promoting charter schools and voucher schemes.

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Charter Schools, William Lamberth, and Math

I’ve written recently about Governor Bill Lee’s Charter School Slush Fund and how the funds are beginning to be distributed across the state. This money is dedicated to capital improvements and is available exclusively to charter schools, many of which not only receive BEP funds from local districts but also benefit from support from private funders.

Interestingly, House Majority Leader William Lamberth has been a proponent of capital investment funds for fast-growing districts like Sumner County, where he lives. He’s even sponsored legislation that would provide a mechanism for these districts to access funds. The legislation has failed to advance because of a price tag of just over $18 million.

So, if Lamberth is really focused on securing state funds for capital investment in the district he represents, he COULD suggest that Sumner County convert all of its schools to charter schools. That way, they could access the Charter School Slush Fund.

Based on current enrollment numbers, the Charter School Slush Fund provides roughly $285 per student for charter schools. If every single school in Sumner County became a charter school, the district could access over $8 million in capital funding from the state.

State law specifically authorizes local districts to convert existing schools to charters. TCA 49-13-106 provides:

(g)  A public charter school may be formed by creating a new school or converting a school to charter status pursuant to this chapter.


(3)  An existing public school may convert to a public charter school pursuant to this chapter if the parents of at least sixty percent (60%) of the children enrolled in the school, or at least sixty percent (60%) of the teachers assigned to the school, support the conversion and demonstrate such support by signing a petition seeking conversion, and if the LEA approves the application for conversion. The percentage of parents signing a petition must be calculated on the basis of one (1) vote for each child enrolled in the school.

So, instead of Lamberth running his capital improvement bill next session, he could simply ask the Sumner County School Board to convert their schools to charters. That way, they’d be sure to be on Governor Bill Lee’s radar AND they could access monies from the Charter School Slush Fund.

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