Tennessee raises teacher base pay to $38,000

A teacher grades papers in an empty classroom.
Tennessee’s lowest-paid teachers will get a raise with the 2021-22 school year under a new salary schedule approved by the State Board of Education. (Leren Lu / Getty Images)

Tennessee teachers with a bachelor’s degree and no teaching experience will be paid an annual minimum of $38,000 beginning with the new school year, a $2,000 increase over the last two years.

The new salary schedule, approved last week by the State Board of Education, means the minimum pay will also go up by $2,000 for teachers with advanced degrees and additional years of experience.

The increases will help the state’s lowest paid public school teachers, whose local districts provide the state’s minimum required salary. The Department of Education estimates the change will affect about 5,200 out of nearly 63,000 educators.

The uptick is possible under a new state budget taking effect July 1. Gov. Bill Lee and the legislature invested $120 million more toward educator salaries and benefits, a 4% funding increase from a year ago.

The improvement comes as Tennessee lags Southern and national averages for both starting pay and overall salaries. The state is also bracing for a wave of retirements and struggling to secure teachers for hard-to-staff areas such as special education and classes for students learning to speak English. 

A recent analysis by the Southern Regional Education Board shows Tennessee’s average educator salary in 2018-19 trailed half of the region’s states, including in border states like Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia. 

Early in his administration, Lee vowed to make Tennessee the best state in America to be a teacher, but pandemic-related budget uncertainties and cuts delayed increases planned for the 2020-21 school year.

“We are back on track with teacher increases now,” Charlie Bufalino, the education department’s policy liaison to the legislature, told the state board.

The $2,000 bump in base pay doesn’t mean all teachers will see a noticeable pop in their paychecks, though.

Most school systems use local funds to supplement the state’s minimum salary. Still, the Department of Education estimates the change will cause about half of Tennessee 147 districts to raise at least one level of their local salary schedule, which sets teacher pay based on years of experience and education level.

The new minimum salary for new teachers is 5.6% more than for the current school year, drawing praise from the state’s largest teacher organization.

“We applaud the State Board of Education for exceeding the increase to the salary schedule passed by the legislature,” said President Beth Brown of the Tennessee Education Association. “This will result in a much-needed increase for the state’s lowest paid teachers.”

Districts have flexibility over how to use state funds toward teacher compensation, so it’s uncertain how much of Tennessee’s 4% increase will trickle down to teachers who are paid more than the state minimum.

Because of disagreements on the adequacy of state funding, districts have hired about 10,000 teachers beyond what the state’s formula provides. Any increase could get spread across those salaries too. Districts also could opt to use next year’s increase to hire more staff or improve benefits.

Since restructuring its minimum salary schedule in 2013, Tennessee has increased its base pay most every year. Between 2016 and 2019, the state added about $370 million toward teacher compensation overall.

A report from the Southern Regional Education Board found that many states raised teacher pay substantially in recent years, but salaries barely recovered from cuts and stagnation during the great recession a decade ago. The report urges states to develop comprehensive long-term plans.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said the governor intends to continue raising teacher pay so districts can be more competitive, especially since many are located along Tennessee’s eight border states.

“Candidly,” Schwinn said, “we’ve got some big challenge areas.”

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