A pair of bills seeking to address the disconnect between state money provided for raises and salary increases was discussed extensively in the legislature recently. There is a growing realization on the part of lawmakers that the raises they pass aren’t always getting into the paychecks of Tennessee educators.
“It’s clear teachers have succeeded in raising awareness on this important issue,” said TEA chief lobbyist Jim Wrye. “Lawmakers specifically mentioned repeated calls from back home by teachers reporting they received little to no raises, despite the state doing their part by increasing the money sent to the school system.”
One bill by Rep. Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah) sought to require schools in his district to ensure that teacher salary schedules are adjusted up whenever the state provides a raise. The bill ultimately failed to pass out of subcommittee in the house, but there was extensive discussion on the bill that highlighted a number of issues that have contributed to the lagging teacher pay. Opponents of the bill highlighted the flexibility that local school systems have under current law to use money allocated for teacher pay in a variety of ways. School systems have the ability to use that money to hire new positions, fund alternative pay plans, including pay for test scores, and to fund benefits in certain circumstances.
“Using money sent to schools for teacher pay for health insurance benefits is problematic for a couple reasons,” Wrye said. “First, if you don’t take the district health insurance, you get nothing. Also, your employer paying more toward your health insurance premium doesn’t improve a teacher’s retirement at all. Her TCRS benefit depends entirely on the highest five years of salary, which stagnates when that money is spent on other things.”
Another bill, by Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis) and Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), has advanced out of committees in each chamber and is requesting the Office of Educational Research and Accountability (OREA), part of the comptroller’s office, to study issues relating to teacher pay over the last three years. TEA supports the study, as it will likely highlight the unintended consequences of stressing spending flexibility to school systems.
A familiar refrain in the general assembly is that the BEP school funding formula is a funding plan, not a spending plan, and that justification is often brought up to defend school systems’ ability to use money for things other than teacher pay. However, there are still rules for what can be done with the money sent to systems through the BEP. For example, money allocated for instructional staff can’t be used for non-licensed staff. The Department of Education has also made clear during questioning from lawmakers this year that the intent of the money is for it to be used for teacher salaries.
“It’s clear that average teacher pay hasn’t kept up with state investment, and that this wasn’t the case in the past,” Wrye said. “We look forward to the excellent researchers at OREA looking at this issue more closely, and hope there will be recommendations moving forward so legislators know their funding increases reach their intended target.”