Tennessee teachers with a bachelor’s degree and no teaching experience must be paid a minimum of $36,000 next school year, an increase of $1,000 under a new salary schedule approved Friday by the State Board of Education.
And the state’s base pay for advanced degrees and additional years of experience also is going up — by a modest $50 annually.
The increases were recommended by Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn and continue Tennessee’s slow-but-steady quest to boost teacher pay to stay competitive. Base pay has risen by similar amounts every year since the state restructured its minimum salary schedule in 2013 to give districts room to develop strategic compensation plans based on local needs or goals.
With Tennessee’s average classroom salary now at $53,980, most of its 147 districts — including those in its largest cities — already pay well above the minimum. The newest upticks are expected to affect about 3,500 teachers in 62 mostly small or rural school systems now meeting the state’s lowest salary threshold.
“We’re trying as a state to continue to raise the floor, so we’re saying no teacher in Tennessee is going to make less than $36,000,” said Sara Morrison, the board’s executive director. “We have eight states that border us so staying competitive in the Southeast is important.”
But new teachers aren’t the only ones likely to see a raise next school year since the legislature allocated an extra $71 million intended for that purpose.
Even with the additional funding, Tennessee’s average teacher salary trails both regional and national numbers.
In 2017-18, the most recent year with available comparisons, Tennessee’s average was $50,900, compared with $60,642 nationally and $52,178 among the 16 states that comprise the Southern Regional Education Board. That snapshot saw Tennessee behind Georgia, Texas, Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina — but ahead of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, and Mississippi.
This year, new Republican Gov. Bill Lee was among 20 governors recommending teacher pay hikes amid a recent wave of teacher strikes and shortages. The resulting $71 million increase continues a trend started under the administration of Bill Haslam.
“The investment from Gov. Lee signals that he’s committed to continuing Gov. Haslam’s work on teacher salaries and we expect to be back next year, hopefully increasing it again,” Assistant Education Commissioner Elizabeth Fiveash told the board.
In modestly boosting base pay, Tennessee is walking a tightrope because local governments also must contribute their own funds toward teacher salaries. “We are running numbers to try to move the number as high as we can without incurring a cost on the local school district,” Fiveash said.
Many local governments, particularly larger ones in Memphis and Nashville, are tapping their tax bases to invest more in their schools, while others struggle to prioritize and cover increases. (Both Shelby County Schools and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools have sued the state over the adequacy of state funding for their students.)
“As the state board, we tiptoe a lot around how much these local governments carry their loads when a lot of them are taking it easy,” said member Mike Edwards, adding: “I would hate to make $36,000 and have to pay my college debt off, along with everything else.”
Fiveash said the state is looking into how much local governments are contributing money to their schools, but also noted that districts need flexibility to juggle their expenses for students. School systems can choose to put their share of instructional funding from the state toward benefits or hiring additional teachers or instructional staff — as long a district’s average salary is at or above the state’s average.
That nuance was examined by Tennessee’s comptroller recently as teachers complained that they weren’t seeing the state’s increases in their paychecks.
The comptroller’s analysis, released in April, reported that the state increased its allocations for teacher pay by $300 million between 2016 and 2018. As a result, salaries rose by over 6%, making Tennessee the Southeast’s third fastest-growing state for teacher pay.
Districts used the money to increase instructional salaries and health insurance by about 9%, while spending on retirement jumped about 8%. The growth in district salary hikes varied, from double-digit increases to actual decreases in some places.
Shelby County Schools, for example, is the state’s largest district and one of its highest-paying, but the audit found that the average classroom salary in Memphis went down during those three years from $57,355 to $56,481, a drop of 1.5%.
The comptroller suggested that the legislature consider requiring districts to begin reporting how they spend state funds for instructional needs.
You can read the full report here.