Resurrecting last year’s promise to make Tennessee the fastest-improving state in teacher compensation, Gov. Bill Haslam unveiled a budget plan Monday evening that earmarks almost $98 million for teacher raises, which could amount to up to a 4 percent raise.

In all, he proposes spending $170 million more for K-12 education, including nearly $44 million to account for growth in the state’s Basic Education Program (BEP) formula, designed to ensure equitable state funding to local school districts.

“There is nothing more important to our state than getting education right,” Haslam told lawmakers during his State of the State address before a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly.

“While other states are cutting K-12 education, Tennessee continues to be one of the few states in the country to make significant investments,” he said, noting that Tennessee K-12 spending has increased at a rate more than double the national average during the last four years.

If approved by lawmakers, Haslam’s $33.3 billion budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 would more than double what he recommended for teacher raises last year, which ultimately didn’t come to fruition due to a revenue shortfall. The funding increase would equate to a 4 percent increase in the state’s contribution to teacher salaries – an impact that still would vary across the state because teachers are paid through a combination of state and local funding.

“We know that a big part of success is to have a great teacher leading every classroom. Just like with state employees, we want to recruit, retain and reward the best and brightest educators,” said Haslam, who also set aside $5 million to pay for liability insurance for teachers at no cost.

The Tennessee Education Association (TEA), Tennessee’s largest teacher union, welcomed the news, saying in a news release that “this proposed pay increase is a strong first step in treating teachers right.”

J.C. Bowman, who heads the Professional Educators of Tennessee, agreed that the raise was a positive step, but expressed concern that financially strapped districts ultimately could allot the money as they choose. “We are somewhat concerned that it might not reach classroom teachers, if strictly left to districts,” he said.

With state legislative leaders as the backdrop, Haslam talks about his vision for education in Tennessee.
PHOTO: TN.gov
With state legislative leaders as the backdrop, Haslam talks about his vision for education in Tennessee.

In his 27-minute address, Haslam also suggested to lawmakers that Tennessee should stick with the Common Core State Standards – although he never mentioned them by name — at least through the current legislative session. He said he is open to “reasonable” changes to teacher evaluations.

Whether the legislature makes Haslam’s vision a reality remains to be seen. The first bill that directly counters his plan —to repeal the Common Core State Standards before Haslam’s review process is complete — is scheduled for debate Wednesday in a House subcommittee. The conversation about education policy in Tennessee already has been marked by a steady rise in opposition to Common Core and, to a lesser extent, testing and the use of tests in teacher evaluations.

But Haslam urged lawmakers not to go backwards. “I truly believe that getting education right is critical to the well-being of our state – today and in the future. We have to keep going full speed ahead,” he said.

Here’s a breakdown of Haslam’s other proposals:

Drive to 55:  Two years ago, Haslam announced an initiative to increase the number of Tennesseans with college degrees from 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025. Much of his latest proposals would expand college opportunities for those already out of the K-12 system, including scholarships for adults to attend community college. (As of this year, recent high school graduates can attend two years of community college for free through the Tennessee Promise program.) He also proposed spending $2.5 million on sustaining Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support, or SAILS, an effort by the state Department of Education and community colleges to help high school seniors with low ACT scores better prepare for college math courses, so they don’t have to take remedial courses after completing high school. Haslam said the program, which has served more than 8,000 students since it started two years ago, has saved families $6.5 million in community college tuition.

Standards: Haslam defined academic standards as “foundational skills that students should know at different grade levels” — a nod to confusion about the impact of standards in Tennessee and across the nation. “To me, it doesn’t really matter what we call our standards,” he said, referencing what he’s called Common Core’s “ruined brand”. “What does matter is that we have the highest standards possible.”

In speaking with thousands of educators over the last four years, Haslam said teachers are tired of being treated like a political football. “We have to give our educators more stability and certainty in their classrooms and not change the game on them session after session,” he said. He also urged Tennesseans to visit the 3-month-old standards review website, which already has received nearly 82,000 comments. “I think it is important that we know exactly what the standards are that we’re talking about and possibly voting on,” he said.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen listens to Haslam's agenda for the state.
PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen listens to Haslam’s agenda for the state.

Teacher evaluations: Haslam didn’t give specifics on changes to teacher evaluations but said he was open to “reasonable changes.” Under his purview, teacher evaluations — which are tied to decisions on payment and employment status — have become contingent on student test scores, prompting criticism from professional educator groups. In December, he proposed decreasing the weight of test scores while the state transitions to a new assessment, which many teachers considered a positive step, but not enough.

Bowman is optimistic that, with the help of Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, Haslam will revamp the evaluation process for teachers of non-tested subjects, many of whom currently are evaluated in part on the performance of students they don’t teach. The TEA recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of teachers of non-tested subjects.

Assessments: Haslam identified assessments, along with teacher evaluations and standards, as one of the three most-discussed K-12 educational issues in Tennessee, but didn’t dwell on tests for long. He repeated a promise that Tennessee’s new assessment, TNReady, will be aligned with the state’s standards. Although he didn’t mention it in his speech, he proposed an $8.5 million bump in spending on assessments this year.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

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