Williamson County Struggles with Teacher Pay

Tori Keafer in the Williamson Herald explains the struggle Williamson County Schools faces with paying teachers enough to live in the county where they are being asked to teach.

Currently, the base salary for teachers in WCS is $40,150. In 2019, the Williamson County Board of Commissioners passed a 7-cent property tax increase to bump the base pay from $37,500 to the current rate.

Housing Struggle

“I think we all agree it’s not enough. We need to continue to make that a focus,” Superintendent Jason Golden said. “After we approved that, some of our neighbors voted for larger increases, so it is a constant battle. And I will tell you also, we’ve talked about the cost of living. Housing is an issue.”

District 9 board member Rick Wimberly pointed out the average home value in Williamson County, using data through May according to Zillow, was just over $595,000. With a $40,000 salary, a teacher would hardly have enough for home payments, he said, and living in an average apartment wouldn’t be that much better either.

“You’re still not scraping by,” he said. “We’ve got to fix that, and we’re not going to fix it tonight. … I just hope this is something, like Eric and like Jason have said, that we can take on as a high priority.”

Wimberly added:

“We are so far off — so far off — that it poses challenges now, but it’s just going to get worse and worse,” he said. “Perhaps it’s after the time I’m gone, but we’re going to have to face it as a community. This is a problem for us. And yeah, you can take my numbers and do whatever you want to with them, but I don’t think you’re going to convince me that we … pay sufficient[ly] to help people where they can have a good lifestyle in Williamson County or even commut[ing] from out of the county.”

The note on the battle over teacher pay in Williamson County comes after a similar story and fight in Maury County.

A recent story on teacher pay across the state also reveals that the state is not doing much to help the situation:

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).

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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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Maury County Teachers Continue Fight for Salary Improvement

Even as the State of Tennessee under the leadership of Gov. Bill Lee continues to sit on a huge revenue surplus rather than fund schools, teachers in Maury County are continuing a push to improve teacher salaries and student learning conditions in the district.

The Columbia Daily Herald reports:

As Enk departs from the role, she celebrated several steps forward for local teachers, including a boost to the school district’s starting salary, a proposed 2.12% increase in pay for all school district staff and a one-time bonus issued earlier this year.

“These are all begging steps and are a step in the right direction and for that we are grateful,” Enk said. “It is the hope that the board continue to come up with a solid proactive plan to make Maury County competitive.”

The contention over the poor condition of teacher pay in the district includes some recent, negative history:

Negotiations followed a court ruling that the school district did not comply with the local association when a previous memorandum of understanding, which included a 5% raise for employees in July 2016, was tabled during a conference with its attorney and never brought up for further review.

A local court ruled in favor of the association.

As school systems across the state work to address issues of competitive salaries, the state’s school funding formula remains underfunded by $1.7 billion. Meanwhile, a new report shows Tennessee makes the lowest net investment in public schools of any state in the nation.

While schools are starved for funding, Lee is continuing a relentless push for privatization, including using “emergency” funds to advance a charter school agenda and usurp the authority of local school boards.

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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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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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Over a Billion

The surplus for the current fiscal year is now over $1 billion with six more months to go, according to figures released by the Tennessee Department of Revenue. This announcement comes as the Sycamore Institute recently released an analysis demonstrating that lawmakers will have at least $3.1 billion in “excess” or unplanned revenue with which to budget in the current cycle.

The figures for January indicated revenue coming in at $380 million above projections. This prompted TEA President Beth Brown to point out that the January surplus alone is three times what Gov. Lee has proposed investing in teacher pay this year.

https://twitter.com/TEA_teachers/status/1360380933648572416?s=20

Lee has shown no indication he plans to make any bold or meaningful investment in public schools, instead preferring to maintain the status quo of an underfunded school system.

The last decade has seen Tennessee’s Republican leadership consistently demonstrate that public schools are not a funding priority.

In fact, the Education Law Center has released a report noting that from 2008 to 2018, school funding in inflation-adjusted dollars in Tennessee actually decreased by $1,065 per pupil. To put it another way, had school spending kept up with inflation, our schools would see an additional $1 billion in state investment.

This figure would come close to filling the $1.7 billion gap in the current BEP funding formula.

As Brown notes, with the surplus this year and projected revenue for the FY 2022 budget, Tennessee could easily fill that gap.

I want to point this out ONE MORE TIME: We can add at least $2 billion to our investment in schools and do so without raising anyone’s taxes. In fact, doing so would likely help keep local property taxes down for some time to come.

So, the question remains: Does Gov. Bill Lee want to invest in Tennessee’s public schools? Does the Tennessee General Assembly want to use this special opportunity to right the wrongs of the last decade of underfunding? Do our policymakers want us to remain 46th in school funding or do they want the reality to match their rhetoric? Will they show that students matter and that our communities deserve excellent schools?

This is like pushing the “easy button.” No new taxes, a big investment in schools, making Tennessee a place where public education is a top priority – all without raising taxes one cent.

If the current leadership won’t fund public schools under these conditions, they never will.

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Underwhelming

Gov. Bill Lee delivered his State of the State address tonight and surprising exactly no one, he failed to make bold new investments in public education in spite of a record surplus in excess of $3 billion.

Instead, Lee proposed continuing to “fully fund” the wholly inadequate BEP formula to the tune of an additional $71 million and add $120 million to the teacher compensation component of the BEP. That’s essentially a 4% increase in the BEP allocation NOT a 4% raise in actual teacher compensation.

To be clear, the state needs $1.7 billion to adequately fund the BEP and Lee is proposing adding $71 million. If you add the teacher compensation element to this, you get $191 million. Or, roughly 10 percent of what is actually needed.

Here’s what Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown had to say regarding Lee’s proposal:

Gov. Lee’s proposed increases for public education is not enough to meet current needs and falls far short of what was possible with record state revenue surpluses and collections. Tennessee ranks 46th in the nation on funding per pupil, only ahead of Mississippi and well behind Alabama, Arkansas, and every other southern state. Nothing the governor outlined in his budget changes this intolerable fact. 

Long before the pandemic hit our state, our public schools were already suffering under a plague of chronic underfunding. It is irresponsible and harmful to Tennessee children for Gov. Lee to continue this pattern of insufficient state investment in our schools, especially at a time when Tennessee has the largest revenue surpluses in state history. We can and must do better for our students.     

TEA understands the budget as outlined may not be the same at final passage. As record surpluses continue, TEA will work to see the current budget for K-12 increased.

A significant increase in public education funding could address many challenges plaguing our schools, including not having enough fulltime nurses and counselors, unstaffed libraries with outdated resources, inequities and gaps in technology, and a diminishing talent pool of qualified educators due to low salaries and long hours.  

The Lee administration has an extra $3 billion to budget. There has never been a better time to make the necessary investment for Tennessee students, educators and schools.

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Pitiful

That’s how Tennessee Education Association (TEA) President Beth Brown described the state of education funding in Tennessee.

The Chattanooga Times-Free Press reports on Brown’s remarks, which come just as Gov. Bill Lee prepares to deliver his State of the State address tonight.

Brown notes:

“Our funding is so low the only neighboring state we beat is Mississippi,” wrote Brown, a Grundy County teacher. “To meet Kentucky’s per student investment, the state would need $2.6 billion; to match Arkansas, the increase would be $860 million; and to be on par with Alabama would require $560 million this year alone.”

Brown’s criticism of the state’s poor track record of investment is noteworthy as the state now sits on a $3.1 billion surplus due to better than expected revenue flow during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Brown says the state can do more, the Tennessee House Republican Caucus is bragging about what are rather dismal numbers over the past 10 years.

Last year, Lee proposed a 4% increase the BEP allocation for teacher pay, but then cancelled that planned raise when the pandemic hit.

Even the state’s own bipartisan group of policymakers assigned to the task of assessing government policy as it impacts state and local issues suggests we need big, new investment in schools in order to adequately fund the BEP:

Still, I’ve yet to hear anyone in the state’s legislative leadership call for bold, new investments in public schools. Yes, a bipartisan group of policymakers has suggested that our school funding formula – the BEP – needs $1.7 billion just to be adequate. Still, Gov. Bill Lee has not come out and mentioned that he’ll be proposing using these surplus dollars to fund schools.

Tune-in tonight and see whether Lee makes any attempt at meeting this challenge.

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Do We Really Have to Do This?

I mean, really? The Tennessee House Republican Caucus sent out a tweet today bragging about the amount of money the state has invested in teacher pay over the past decade.

Here it is:

I’m not even sure where to start. Well, actually, I am.

  1. $616.5 million sounds great, and it’s neat to aggregate data over a decade, but that BIG number averages out to about $62 million per year. That’s about a 2% increase in the BEP salary allocation (not actual money in paychecks) each year. Calm down a little, already.
  2. Did I mention that $616.5 million might sound great? So, the TN House GOP is all excited about spending $616 million plus over TEN years, while the state is sitting on a $3.1 billion surplus this year alone! That means we could spend $616 million in teacher salaries THIS YEAR and still have more than $2.4 billion LEFT to spend. Read that again. Republicans are bragging about taking an entire decade to allocate in total what is available THIS year and could be funded while still leaving $2.4 billion for other priorities.
  3. A bipartisan group of policymakers reports that we need $1.7 billion in a SINGLE year in order to adequately fund the BEP. That’s because the BEP badly underestimates the number of teachers actually needed to staff schools. Of course, the BEP also fails to take into account proper ratios for school nurses or school counselors. The BEP is pretty much broken, and has been for some time.
  4. It was Republican Gov. Bill Haslam who stopped the BEP 2.0 formula that was an attempt to correct and improve the BEP allocation.
  5. Remember that time when Gov. Haslam got all excited about our NAEP scores and promised a big raise to teachers and then cancelled the raise? Remember how after he cancelled the raise, revenue numbers came in at a level that meant the raise really could have been funded? Good times.
  6. Oh, yeah. School districts fund significantly more teachers than the BEP allocates. Yes, this has been a known problem for some time. Yes, the GOP has been running most of state government for over a decade. No, they haven’t done anything to fix it.
  7. There was also that time when the Haslam Department of Education called on the State Board of Education to give local districts flexibility with BEP salary money. Essentially, this created a situation where the 4% BEP salary allocation increase became a 2% (or less) raise.
  8. Remember the time when Gov. Bill Lee gave a big increase in state funding to charter schools and a tiny raise to teachers? Wonder if teachers remember that? I bet that makes them feel really appreciated.
  9. Remember the year when Gov. Lee became the second governor in a row named Bill to promise teachers a big raise and then cancel it when things got tough? Because, yeah, that was 2020. How’d that tough budget Lee was worried about turn out? Oh, right, that’s the one with the $3.1 billion surplus.
  10. Finally, in the recently concluded special session, Gov. Lee proposed and his legislative leadership secured passage of legislation giving teachers a 10 cents on the dollar COVID raise. That’s right, in a year when there’s plenty of cash and teachers are working more and harder than ever, Gov. Lee is placing the value of teachers at 10 cents on the dollar.
  11. Oh, and yes, Tennessee consistently receives a grade of “F” in both school funding and school funding effort from national groups who analyze state level investment in schools.

So, try again TN House GOP tweeter. Maybe next time, do some math and take a look at the archives.

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Money Storm

It’s raining money in Tennessee as recently-released projections suggest state policymakers could have as much as $3.1 billion EXTRA to allocate when they return for the regular legislative session next week.

This is, of course, a very good position. However, it’s not at all clear the state will allocate those resources into meaningful investments that improve the quality of life in Tennessee.

Take the action on teacher compensation during the special session as an example. Despite early reports that revenue would be higher than anticipated, Gov. Bill Lee’s teacher pay adjustment amounted to roughly 10 cents on the dollar compared to the extra work teachers have been doing during the pandemic. There was little meaningful investment in public schools at all, really.

In case you’re curious about how we got to a place where we have $3.1 billion extra to spend, the Sycamore Institute breaks it down.

In late March 2020, consumer spending in Tennessee dropped 27% below January levels – compared to 32% nationally. Soon after, the state received billions in federal aid designed to provide economic relief to citizens, businesses, and health care providers. After federal stimulus payments and enhanced unemployment benefits began in mid-April, Tennessee’s consumer spending rebounded close to pre-pandemic levels, while spending nationwide remained down by about 16%. (1) (2) Meanwhile, prior changes to state law took effect in July 2020 that led the state to collect sales tax on more internet purchases.

Here’s the breakdown of the extra cash:

Compared to the current budget, the governor and state lawmakers may have about $3.1 billion in additional General Fund revenue† to allocate this session (Figure 3). Based on the upper end of the annual Funding Board ranges, this includes:

$476 million (non-recurring) from the FY 2020 surplus (8)

$1.1 billion (non-recurring) from projected FY 2021 collections above official budgeted estimates (4)

$1.5 billion (recurring) from the increased FY 2021 base plus projected FY 2022 growth (4)

It’s worth noting here that TACIR – a bipartisan group of policymakers that studies and reports on government activity in the state – reports that Tennessee needs $1.7 billion to adequately fund the BEP.

So, good news! We can afford to make a significant investment that closes this funding gap. I look forward to Gov. Bill Lee’s State of the State next week where he announces that based on these new numbers, he’s making a record-setting investment in public schools and plans to do so throughout the remainder of his term.

But, who am I kidding? Gov. Lee isn’t going to do that. Heck, Lt. Gov. McNally has already talked about finding new ways to offer more tax cuts rather than making new investments.

Tennessee has tried a lot of experiments when it comes to our public schools. One thing we haven’t tried, though, is really investing in them.

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