Will Bill Lee Get Serious About Teacher Pay?

New Tennessee Governor Bill Lee is expected to layout his first spending proposal for the state in late February, with a State of the State Address planned for early March. First, he’s holding hearings to learn from state departments about current expenditures and needs/desires going forward.

Yesterday, he heard from the Department of Education and indicated that improving teacher pay would be among his priorities, though he didn’t offer any specifics.

First, let’s be clear: Our state has the money available to make a significant investment in teacher pay.

TEA identifies more than $800 million in revenue from budget cycles dating back to 2015 that could be invested in schools. Additionally, there’s an estimated surplus of $200 million and new internet sales tax revenue of $200 million.

Next, let’s admit we have a crisis on our hands. Tennessee teachers are paid bargain basement prices and the situation is getting dire:

Tennessee has consistently under-funded schools while foregoing revenue and offering huge local and state tax incentives to Amazon.

In fact, while telling teachers significant raises were “unaffordable” last year, Metro Nashville somehow found millions to lure an Amazon hub to the city. This despite a long-building crisis in teacher pay in the city. Combine a city with low pay for teachers with a state government reluctant to invest in salaries, and you have a pretty low value proposition for teachers in our state.

Now, let’s talk about why this problem persists. It’s because our school funding formula, the BEP, is broken:

The state funds 70% of the BEP instructional component. That means the state sends districts $28,333.90 per BEP-generated teacher. But districts pay an average of $50,355 per teacher they employ. That’s a $22,000 disparity. In other words, instead of paying 70% of a district’s basic instructional costs, the state is paying 56%.

To be clear, those are 2014 numbers. So, let’s update a little. Now, the state pays 70% of $44,430.12, or roughly $31,000 per teacher generated by the BEP formula. But, the actual average cost of a teacher is $53,000. So, districts come up $22,000 short in their quest to stretch state dollars to meet salary needs. Of course, districts are also responsible for 100% of the cost of any teachers hired beyond the BEP generated number. Every single district in the state hires MORE teachers than the BEP generates. Here’s more on that:

First, nearly every district in the state hires more teachers than the BEP formula generates. This is because students don’t arrive in neatly packaged groups of 20 or 25, and because districts choose to enhance their curriculum with AP courses, foreign language, physical education, and other programs. This add-ons are not fully contemplated by the BEP.

Chalkbeat notes another challenge of getting money into teacher paychecks:

Under Haslam, the state increased allocations for teacher pay the last three years, but the money hasn’t always reached their paychecks. That’s because districts have discretion on how to invest state funding for instructional needs if they already pay their teachers the state’s average weighted annual salary of $45,038.

There are, of course, some clear solutions to these challenges. These solutions have yet to be tried. Mainly because they cost money and our political leaders have so far lacked the will to prioritize a meaningful investment in our teaching force. Here’s an outline of how those solutions might work:

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.

My guess? Bill Lee won’t propose either of these solutions. That doesn’t mean a legislator can’t or won’t — though it hasn’t happened so far.

Stay tuned for late February, when we’ll see what Bill Lee means when he says he’s committed to improving teacher pay.

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