The Governor, The Budget And Making Teacher Salaries A Priority

Tuesday, April 1, 2014 - by J.C. Bowman, Professional Educators of Tennessee

By now Governor Haslam is aware of the disappointment by educators in his decision to remove increases in teacher salaries.  In reneging on this promise, making Tennessee the fastest improving state in the nation when it comes to teacher salaries, it is clear his priorities have shifted. This pay raise was promoted with great fanfare.  

In October 2013, Professional Educators of Tennessee applauded Governor Haslam’s decision to make Tennessee the fastest growing state for teacher salaries.   We must equally be concerned about the abandonment of this pledge and reneging on this statement within such a short period of time.

Public school teachers do incredible work across the state of Tennessee and the nation.  They are often not recognized for their tireless dedication to a very demanding job, in which most educators identify as a calling.  It has been fashionable to lay all the ills of society at the feet of teachers, but it is not fair.  Every intelligent debate on student achievement would be wise to consider factors beyond the control of most teachers and schools.   

No generation of educators in the history of the world has been asked to do what we now demand of our public schools.  The challenge and responsibility has grown, yet public schools gladly commit to teach all children who enter their classrooms.  

Everyday teachers are challenged by a wide-ranging mixture of social, psychological, and physical problems that impede the improvement of so many students entrusted into their care.  You cannot reduce salaries or fail to reward Tennessee Educators and hope to attract and retain the best teachers to prepare students for the jobs of the future. This must be a legislative priority. 

We need to take a very close look at teacher attrition.  It is difficult to create a stable and world class education with a highly unstable teaching workforce. You cannot continue to make teachers, or state employees for that matter, a non-priority.  When legislative priorities are more focused on the results of a test given at the end of a school the year, rather than those educating children then we have lost our focus as a state.  We have made textbook companies and test publishers prosperous while we engage in a rigorous debate over a 2% raise for a teacher.  People deserve a higher priority.      

Governor Haslam’s conundrum, business tax revenues are roughly $200 million less than projections. However, educators cannot understand how the Haslam Administration could have changed course so quickly and make educators bear the brunt of his decision making.  In a political environment rampant with ideological conflict and tainted by partisanship, surely no policymaker of either party can be satisfied by the decision to abandon minor raises for teachers and state workers.

Policymakers understand that state policies and budget decisions affect the lives of Tennesseans. Any budget proposed must decisively connect tax dollars to state priorities. When teacher salaries are cut from the state budget you may well be creating another unfunded state mandate on LEA’s due to the state mandated differentiated pay plan.  We encourage policymakers to discuss directly with LEA’s in their community.     

Like many policymakers, we feel disconnected when we hear of decisions impacting public education through the media, and not from the governor or his staff directly. Stakeholders should have a chance to weigh in on the cumulative effects of a policy change.  This is poor leadership and lacks transparency.  We would maintain when confronting a calamity of this nature, government needs to be transparent about the situation, the people, and the decisions which must be made. Transparency breeds accountability, accountability leads to trust, and trust will allow Tennesseans to know their tax dollars are used wisely.

Research clearly and consistently demonstrates that the quality of the classroom teacher is the number one school based factor in student learning. This is not what is reflected in Governor Haslam’s budget. And it is up to policymakers and constituents to ask the governor why teacher salaries are not a priority.  

J.C. Bowman is the executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association located in Franklin, Tenn.

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