I have advocated and fought for increases in teacher salaries for educators over the decades. Beyond mere rhetoric, I actually talk to those policymakers at the state level who set the budget which largely determines salaries. We know that many teachers still struggle to support their own families, particularly in places where the cost of living is higher. That is unacceptable.
Salaries must be a priority, and we believe that based on our candid conversations with policymakers that include Governor Lee, Commissioner Schwinn and the Tennessee General Assembly that they will likely put forth a robust plan to ensure tax dollars are allocated for teacher salaries in 2020 by the State of the State. This is a challenge that policymakers must tackle in order to recruit and retain effective educators in our classrooms, as well as keep needed to support personnel and staff.
State Senator Todd Gardenhire and State Rep. Mike Carter have been asking a critical question for the purpose of salary increases, "What exactly constitutes a teacher?” It is a good question, in which policymakers and stakeholders alike need to answer and reach consensus, in order to tie to funding.
While it is as accurate to say that the state has allocated more dollars toward teacher salaries, local school systems are funding more than the number of positions that the state of Tennessee provides through our state funding formula known as the Basic Education Program. The General Assembly passed legislation last year to increase transparency. The legislation now requires local education agencies to report to the Department of Education how additional funds are used each year when a Local Education Agency receives increased funding from the state for salaries and wages. Some of the BEP dollars allocated for salary increases over the years have been used to cover other costs, such as additional personnel and health insurance.
It is indisputable that after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, school districts and school personnel saw escalating cost increases in health insurance premiums. The increase was triggered when the federal legislation gave many people without medical coverage and pre-existing conditions health care coverage. An essential element to any salary discussion must include an examination of the impact on health care benefits provided to system employees and cost. Politicians reason that the sky-high premiums are balanced by holding down the rate of spending on medical services. For school districts and teachers, it also means a further lack of salary increase and rising health care costs. Managing benefits, especially health insurance costs, will allow school districts to stay competitive and attract and retain employees.
The Comptroller's Office of Research and Education Accountability concluded that the available financial data for districts does not permit tracking salary expenditures back to their revenue sources. District budgets do not identify what portion of expenditures are paid for with state funds versus local funds. That certainly needs to be corrected. This raises questions when local educators try to determine salary increases, as they do not factor in these details in local discussions.
Nashville and Chattanooga have seen some very angry debates take place over education salaries. It is interesting that in both of these cities, teacher union leaders have historically impacted local elections, with political endorsements and political donations, with member dollars electing “their” people. In Nashville, union leaders endorsed at least the last four Mayors, and it appears where teacher vacancies are among the highest, and teacher satisfaction is among the lowest. In both cities, the union has funded school board members and candidates. Obviously, they have little return to show for those efforts as salary increases have not kept up with the cost of living.
Nashville and Chattanooga are also where the antagonism and discontent surface greatest and are the most vitriolic. The union leader solution is the blind faith in the power of controlling politicians through the use of members’ dues for political donations that have not worked. Endorsements and political donations have just not made the teacher's lives better. Most teachers are slowly coming to realize this brutal fact.
Former NEA leader, John Lloyd, stated his union used Saul Alinsky as a consultant to train their staff. When their strategy fails to deliver results for educators, union leaders have to display faux anger and/or misdirection. They will mention, “Toxic work environments, overwhelming workloads, not enough teaching resources, unfair evaluations, school buildings badly in need of repair, not enough support for students, violence, and trauma, debilitating levels of stress, being expected to work more and more while wages stagnate.” However, their Alinsky tactics helped create those very conditions. Like Alinsky, union leaders are more focused on transitioning from helping teachers (labor) to more community organizing. They may have had some good intentions, but good intentions don't help educators. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd, was just as direct in his response to his local union leaders and their tactics in the Chattanoogan, “What you are doing will not work, and you are complaining to the wrong people. How many times must you be told that it was the School Board who failed to give teachers a raise, not the Commission. The School Board had plenty of money, but the board, along with you as the teacher representative, placed hiring more staff above teacher salaries. Even worse, you as the union president placed absolutely no value on seniority and years of service when deciding to give out Christmas bonuses.” Boyd identified the root of the angst and problem. However, teachers and others are still caught in the crossfire.
There is much need by the state to develop a more complete overview and understanding of salary trends by local districts and the state must understand its role in this process. We must update our K12 funding formula to reflect changing 21st century needs. As a businessman, Governor Bill Lee is well-positioned to push for a new funding plan and formula that reflects our modern educational mission, priorities, and strategies. Salaries have to be addressed as a critical component of that plan.
The single most important factor in student success are teachers, so compensating educators has to be critical for any public policy or future funding formula. We must support our teachers and make sure that the dollars allocated by the state and local government for salaries actually reach them, as policymakers intended. Even Jacobian Magazine, a principal voice of the American left and socialism admits: “Alinsky-style organizations have been increasingly unable to secure substantive victories” (since the 1960s). Educators should take a more active role in developing political support of public education, but if the past is in any indicator, Alinsky style tactics will no longer work --- something teacher union leaders need to understand and many teachers and others already understands.
Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee