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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Tylor Talks Teaching

Nashville school board member Abigail Tylor talks about the crisis facing public education when it comes to recruiting and retaining teachers in a recent Twitter thread.

Here are her thoughts:

These are all extremely important points. When we apply them specifically to TN, here’s what we can learn (a thread):

1. When you take into account changes in benefits and cost of living increases, teachers in TN make LESS now than they made 10 years ago. 1/

2. TN ranks 36th in the nation for teacher pay & it’s not due to a lower cost of living. TN teachers make 21.4% less than non-teacher college grads in TN. In fact, there’s no state in the entire US where teacher pay is equal to non-teacher college grad pay. 2/

3. Teachers in TN have been promised substantial raises by our last two governors, only to have both walk it back. When our state budget looks tight, teachers are first on the chopping block. If TN valued teachers, they would prioritize them. 3/

4. Although Gov Lee finally followed through on a teacher raise, it amounts to .10 on the dollar. TN has $3.1 billion in our reserves. $2 billion of that could easily be used to increase teacher pay w/out raising taxes 1cent. He’s choosing not to pay our teachers living wages. 4/

5. Fewer college students are choosing to major in education. Research shows that teachers who enter the profession w/out adequate preparation are more likely to quit. When we rely on programs that skip student teaching & necessary coursework, turnover rate is 2 to 3x higher. 5/

6. In TN, 47.51% of inexperienced teachers are in high-minority schools compared to 8.05% in low minority. 11.97% of uncertified teachers are in TN’s high-minority schools compared to .57% in low-minority. Guess which schools are most negatively impacted by high turn overs? 6/6

Originally tweeted by Abigail Tylor (@AbigailTylor) on March 1, 2021.

Tylor is right, of course. Tennessee teachers suffer from a significant wage gap.

Getting to Nashville specifically, teachers in the state’s largest city are severely underpaid.

In 2017, I wrote:

Attracting and retaining teachers will become increasingly more difficult if MNPS doesn’t do more to address the inadequacy of it’s salaries. The system was not paying competitively relative to its peers two years ago, and Nashville’s rapid growth has come with a rising cost of living. Does Nashville value it’s teachers enough to pay them a comfortable salary?

In Nashville, and in Tennessee as a whole, there’s simply not a consistent commitment to investing in teachers. In fact, Gov. Lee’s attempts this year – when the state has a huge surplus – have been underwhelming to put it charitably.

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Make that 2%

In Governor Bill Lee’s initial budget address, he proposed a 4% adjustment to the BEP salary component (effectively a 2% raise for teachers). Now, in the face of the coronavirus threat, his revised budget adjusts that to a 2% increase. That effectively means most teachers will see a raise of less than 1% or, in many cases, no raise at all.

Here’s the budget amendment.

It reduces the BEP inflationary adjustment and cuts in half the initial proposed increase in the teacher salary component. It also completely deletes the charter school slush fund.

Also, according to Chalkbeat, the budget proposal retains $37 million to fund the first year of Lee’s voucher scheme:


Lee retained $37 million for education savings accounts, a controversial program set to start this fall to let eligible families in Memphis and Nashville use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition.

Meanwhile, the proposal adds significantly to the Rainy Day fund.

Yes, instead of using the state’s billions in reserves to keep schools and other services moving forward, this budget proposal actually ADDS to the rainy day fund while cutting improvements to teacher pay.

It’s up to the General Assembly to approve this measure, of course, but there’s little indication Lee’s moves will be challenged.

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Hamilton County Teachers Win 2.5% Raise

Teachers in Hamilton County won approval of a 2.5% pay hike, according to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press.


The Board of Education voted unanimously in favor of the 2.5% raise proposed earlier this month by Superintendent Bryan Johnson at its meeting Thursday night — the same night the board approved a new contract and a raise for Johnson.


The mid-year raise, which is effective retroactively as of Feb. 8, is possible thanks to $3 million in savings during the first half of the fiscal year, according to district officials.

The move comes even as some lawmakers are focusing on ways to improve Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed 4% increase to the state’s share of BEP money dedicated to teachers.

Meanwhile, Nashville school board members are calling on the state to dramatically increase investment in schools.

For the second year in a row, Lee has proposed doubling a state slush fund for charter schools while offering only a small increase in teacher compensation. In fact, one study indicates teachers in Tennessee are paid at a lower rate (when accounting for inflation) than they were back in 2009.

After adjusting for inflation, however, teachers’ average pay during the 2018-2019 school year was still about 4.4% lower than a decade earlier.

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Why Teacher Pay Matters

Sure, it seems obvious that raising teacher pay makes a difference. But, it’s nice to have some evidence to back that claim up. Especially in a state where teachers now earn 4.4% less than they did back in 2009.

We Are Teachers has put together a list of six benefits of boosting teacher pay. Here are some highlights:


A majority (76%) of responders to a TIME poll said they agreed that many people won’t go into teaching because it doesn’t pay enough. This means fewer graduates of teacher education programs, and fewer teachers looking to fill the increase in demand for teachers.


Unsurprisingly, teacher pay has been shown to reduce turnover (which, in turn, increases student performance). Turnover is about 16% each year, and around 8% of teachers annually leave the profession entirely as opposed to moving to another school.


For example, a study in San Francisco found that when the salary for teaching was increased, the size and quality of teacher applicants increased.


Teachers are 30% more likely than non-teachers to have a second job. It goes without saying that raising teacher pay so teachers didn’t have to work a second job would boost teacher morale and help them stay focused on their classrooms.


In some states, teacher salaries are so low that teachers routinely qualify for public benefits like food stamps or public health care programs (like children’s health insurance programs). This is especially true for teachers who are the primary breadwinner in their family or have large families.


When teachers get paid more, students do better. In one study, a 10% increase in teacher pay was estimated to produce a 5 to 10% increase in student performance. Teacher pay also has long-term benefits for students. A 10% increase in per-pupil spending for each of the 12 years of education results in students completing more education, having 7% higher wages, and having a reduced rate of adult poverty. These benefits are even greater for families who are in poverty.

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Party like it’s 2009

Tennessee teachers may want to hop in the wayback machine in order to see a bigger paycheck. That’s according to data released by the Sycamore Institute that indicates that teachers in Tennessee now earn about $2400 less per year than they did in 2009.

Here’s more from the group’s analysis of Governor Lee’s 2020-21 budget:


Between FY 2016 and FY 2020, lawmakers enacted a total of $429 million in recurring increases for teacher pay. Since that time, growth in Tennessee teachers’ average pay has begun to catch up with inflation. After adjusting for inflation, however, teachers’ average pay during the 2018-2019 school year was still about 4.4% lower than a decade earlier.

To approach the salaries teachers enjoyed all the way back in 2009, the General Assembly would need to add roughly $100 million to Lee’s proposed increase for this year. That’s entirely doable, as the state has enjoyed multiple years of surplus revenue. That is, we can significantly raise teacher pay AND not raise taxes.

Of course, adding $100 million would only mean our teachers are BACK to the 2009 level. To make a real improvement, we’d need to at least double that number. Does Tennessee have more than $300 million available to commit to teacher pay? YES! It’s now up to the General Assembly to decide whether or not to make this investment.

Adjusting pay in this way could mean an average increase in teacher pay of just under $4000 for every teacher in Tennessee.

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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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A Tennessee Story from North Carolina

A North Carolina teacher wrote her state representative recently to express frustration over low pay and the cost of living. The email, which has gained attention as part of an ongoing budget fight in the state, could just as easily have been written by a Tennessee teacher. It is published below as Butler provided it, without identifying the specific teacher by name:

…a local teacher here in Brunswick County, North Carolina.  I wanted to express my concern and frustration over the requirements and qualifications required for any form of public assistance.  I realize that there are large amounts of families that are in tight financial situations but I am having difficulty with the fact that as a state employee who works extremely hard every day and I am not able to receive help.  I am a single mom with zero support from my child’s father. He has been unable to be located and works under the table so I cannot track his employment. I have been denied any form of help, from Medicaid for my daughter to food stamps and childcare vouchers.  I understand that I am employed and I am thankful for this every day but when I submit my information to try to get any assistance, I am denied because my Gross amount of pay is utilized, rather than my take home pay. According to my paycheck, I make $4,840 a month.  This is not accurate. I have to take into consideration that I only get paid 10 times a year and therefore I have set up at Summer Cash account through SECU to help save money for the months I am not paid in the Summer. I take out $600 from each paycheck for that amount which leaves me with $4,240.  I also have supplemental insurances to help cover emergencies since I am the only income for my family. This costs $440.32 a month. I am now at $3,799 a month. Then I have to take into account that I have state, federal, retirement, social security, and medicare taken from my paycheck for the amount of $1,070.89.  I am now bringing home $2,728.79. With my take home pay, I have monthly bills that I have to pay. I pay $975 a month in rent, $130 in utilities, my phone bill is $143, car insurance is $100, insurance for my daughters health and dental is $84. I have student loan payments at $336 a month. I have personal loan payments each month from trying to cover months that I was extremely in debt.  These total $393. I have to pay day care each week at $90 a week so on average that is $405. I am at $162.79 left. I also have credit card payments each month that cost $156.00. I have $6.79 left in my bank account to now cover gas, groceries, and miscellaneous items that always arise. I am currently in debt from not being able to pay all of my bills each month. I am $504 in debt to one student loan company and $672 to another.  My bank account currently sits at $0.64. I have another week before payday.

If you would so willing to help explain to me what I can do about this I would greatly appreciate it.  I am trying extremely hard each month to make it day to day. I often go without food in order to make sure that my daughter is provided for.  I depend on the charity of friends to help cook me dinner with leftovers since they know how hard I am struggling. I have sold off everything I can in my household to try to supplement my income and I try to pick up babysitting jobs or tutoring to make ends meet.  I am asking for your help as my local representative with this. I know I am not the only teacher in this situation. I realize that some strides are being taken to help with teacher pay but I need help now. If I would be able to get any kind of assistance I would be more than grateful.

If you are a Tennessee teacher with a similar story you’d like to share, you can email andy@tnedreport.com and I’ll help tell your story — anonymity is always protected.

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18%

Groups representing teachers in Memphis are seeking a salary increase of up to 18%, according to a story in Chalkbeat:


Shelby County Schools teachers would be able to earn up to $86,000 annually under the highest of three proposals from the district’s two teacher associations.

That would be 18% more than the current maximum salary of $73,000.
The associations want up to a 16% boost to the district’s $43,000 minimum salary for new teachers. But Cheronda Thompson, who represented United Education Association of Shelby County, said increasing the maximum is more important.
“It’s not about how we start, it’s about how we finish,” she said during negotiations Friday afternoon. “We want to retain people. They already start good.”

The move comes as districts like Nashville struggle with teacher retention and pay significantly less than other urban districts. Additionally, suburban districts like Sumner County have moved to make meaningful improvements to teacher pay.

Teacher pay is a national crisis, but particularly problematic in Tennessee, as Chalkbeat notes:

Research shows that teachers make the most difference in a student’s academic success, but districts nationwide are struggling to recruit and retain effective educators. An often cited reason is salary, especially in states like Tennessee where the average teacher salary trails both regional and national numbers.

It’s worth noting that Governor Bill Lee has done nothing to address the teacher pay crisis, and in fact has worked to divert funds to voucher schemes and charter schools.

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The Struggle is Real

As Sumner County considers providing teachers with a $4000 pay raise for the 2020-21 academic year, teachers there have taken to Facebook to explain the struggles they face under current salary conditions. Here are some excerpts from a few of those stories:

I teach full time, sponsor an extracurricular that requires multiple hours outside of the regular school day, and I work another job two nights a week and on occasional weekends. Wow this is just eye opening that people believe teachers have the nicest of everything. My apartment was flooded this week, and I’m potentially looking at having to move back in with parents until I can afford to get a house. That comment has me completely baffled.

I’ve been teaching for 18 years. I have had a second job for 16 of those 18. As a single woman, I have had a roommate for the last 10 years because I can not afford to live on my own. I have lost a home in foreclosure in the last 10 years. I will be paying for my student loans well after retirement age (I have a bachelors and a masters). I still live paycheck to paycheck with no savings to speak of. I drive a car that is 12.5 years old and was not purchased new. Would I choose to be a teacher again if I knew these circumstances? Yes. God has called me to this profession. But it only seems fair that people who work tirelessly to make a difference in the lives of children should be treated as the professionals that they are and compensated as such. Oh yeah, and before I was a teacher, I was a missionary. I had to raise 100% of my support. When I left the mission field and began teaching, I took a shocking pay cut. .


It’s not only a struggle financially, it is a struggle mentally, physically, and emotionally on myself and my family. The fact that I am at school hours before school begins, ends, and on weekends is crazy. The fact that my kids don’t understand why mommy spends so much time away from them when school is “over”. The struggle comes when I am constantly looking and comparing my bank account to when the next payday is and wondering what else I can find in the pantry to feed my family until payday comes around. The struggle is when it’s 5pm on a Monday, and I need to leave the classroom, and get all of the kids and take them home to eat, but I still have so much work that needs to be done in order to give my students the best.


If many teachers are having to work other jobs, you should know they can not and will not be able to give their best to their students. I was tired before the day began and I couldn’t grade timely enough because of my other responsibilities. (Fun fact – it’s in our contracts to not work other jobs that could get in the way of our performance)
4) It should not be okay that we justify paying teachers poorly because most teachers are female and have husbands that could support the family. That is a stereotype that isn’t always true nor should it be acceptable. Teaching isn’t a hobby. We are professionals with high levels of education. I literally panicked if I had to buy clothing. And I didn’t buy more than maybe a shirt at a time from Target.
5) The financial strain and lack of support for teachers is what makes great teachers quit. I LOVEEEEEE the relationships I build with my students. That’s why I teach. But sometimes, you can be too overwhelmed to remember that.

There’s more — a lot more. And it’s not just in Sumner County, where starting pay for teachers is about $4000 less than in peer districts and lags behind throughout a teacher’s career.

Tennessee is a state that pays teachers poorly and experiences a high teacher wage gap.

Since it’s back to school time, it’s a great time to share your “teacher struggle story.”

What struggles do you face as a Tennessee teacher? Do you work a second or a third job to make ends meet? Tell your story: andy@tnedreport.com

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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