Commentary - Ensuring Salary Increases Reach Educator Pockets

Feb 10, 2023 at 02:00 pm by JC Bowman

Commentary Submited by JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee - As long-time advocates for educator salaries increase, the Professional Educators of Tennessee frequently talks to policymakers at the state level who set the budget which largely determines salaries. Nationally, our economic condition is experiencing heightened inflation. In Tennessee, we know that many teachers struggle to support their own families, particularly in places where the cost of living is higher.  

If Tennessee views teachers as the foundation for student success, then compensation must be continually addressed. We appreciate Governor Lee addressing the salary issue in the State of the State speech. Certainly, teacher salaries are vital to recruiting and retaining educators now and moving forward.  Educators, parents, and taxpayers all deserve transparency related to educator salaries. 

When the state legislature invested money into teacher pay raises under the current funding model, the BEP (Basic Education Program), there was no guarantee that those funds would directly result in teacher salary increases. Now the new funding model, TISA (Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement), contains requirements that ensure that when state dollars are invested in teacher raises, those dollars must go toward teacher raises.

This year in his proposed budget Governor Bill Lee is allocating $350 million more to the TISA formula. He is also budgeting $125 million for teacher salaries. School districts must use state funds allocated for teacher salaries to actually increase salaries. Teacher turnover is exacerbated in states with low pay.

The $125 million is roughly $1700 per full-time teacher or a 4% raise. This supposes 70,000 classroom teachers and equal distribution of a “raise” without additional expenses. Most understand there will be costs. Still, if every teacher receives the increase, it is a positive step forward for educators. 

Senator Todd Gardenhire sought to define what a “teacher” is. He has frequently raised this issue for years, which is worth mentioning. Gardenhire said, “Everyone uses the teachers to get whatever they want. But whenever we try to define what a teacher is, the educational complex tries to stop us.”

Because the definition we use as a state impacts salaries and benefits, Gardenhire’s point about using multiple definitions of a teacher is significant. In the past, well-meaning efforts by the state to pass along salary increases that were supposed to go to teachers ended up in the pockets of others, not teachers.

While it is as accurate to say that the state has allocated more dollars toward teacher salaries over the years, local school systems are funding more than the number of positions that the state of Tennessee supports. Factor in the need by the state and local school districts to manage personnel benefits, especially health insurance costs, and the burden and expense are passed on to teachers. For schools and districts to stay competitive and attract and retain employees, this too needs to be discussed.  

Governor Lee also announced his intention to increase teacher pay to $50,000 for starting teachers by the end of his 2nd term. We also support those bold efforts. We also need to compensate support personnel and staff and make certain they have a livable wage. As Chattanooga Times Free Press editor Clint Cooper wrote, “the pandemic has highlighted anew not only the value of classroom teachers but also their versatility.” Compensation is critical to recruiting and retaining effective educators in our classrooms. 

Teaching is a science, an art, and a craft. It is not for everyone. Most people do not want the responsibility, stress, low salary, or long hours. Parents do not just want anyone instructing their children. Governor Lee missed a great opportunity to respond to Larry Arnn’s disparaging comments about educators in 2022. It seems he is at least making efforts to show respect and value teachers’ capabilities and experience in the 2023 State of the State, and moving forward.

Teachers deserve to be paid like professionals. The TISA funding model, which is pending implementation, does not contain all the solutions for Tennessee students or educators. It will be a work in progress. When it comes to increasing teacher compensation, will we see the funds earmarked for teacher salaries end up in the pockets of those who have made promises to teachers repeatedly and failed to deliver? Like my Grandma used to say, “Don't make any promises that you can't keep.”


 JC Bowman is the executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee