Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 11, 2023

Pay scale, politics make it harder to find, keep teachers

Largest pay raise in state history still has school systems scrambling to fill classrooms

One way to get teachers into Tennessee classrooms, and keep them there? Show them the money.

That’s why state and local education officials have focused on boosting salaries in recent years to stabilize retention and boost recruitment. More is needed, however, so the state also has put into place programs for ongoing education, career advancement and, in the case of non-educators, to ease the path into a teaching job.

The results, say state and local education officials, have helped stabilize the profession in Tennessee.

However, are these initiatives enough to offset post-pandemic fatigue, increasing classroom size, curriculum being used for political gain in a polarized electoral landscape and other negatives?

Maybe, maybe not. That’s why, in a field where there’s no shortage of data for everyone involved to make their case, it’s hard to find a definitive answer.

The Tennessee Education Association, for example, says the moves to boost pay are a floor, not a ceiling, and there are other elements that need addressing.

State and local departments of education, however, say there are plenty of bright spots outside payroll to make the case that Tennessee’s in better shape than many other states.

Both sides say staffing must be looked at as part of an overall education picture that has many elements.

State eyes salaries, career paths

“The vacancy landscape is incredibly nuanced,” says a Tennessee Department of Education official who was allowed to speak with the Ledger on background but not for attribution. “There is the possibility that a shortage and surplus can coexist, depending on the district and even school level.

“What we are seeing across the state is that we’ve got less than 2% vacancy now compared to a national average of about 4%, and we believe that’s resulting from a lot of interventions the state has put into place.”

Some of that comes down to salaries, especially for entry-level teachers. In May, Gov. Bill Lee signed the Teacher Paycheck Protection Act, which pushed $125 million toward the largest pay raise in state history and began an effort to raise the minimum teacher salary by 2026 to $50,000 from $35,000.

The national average for public-school teachers in 2021-22 was $66,745, the National Education Association reports.

Other big-ticket initiatives include an emergency credentialing program for people who want to get into the teaching profession. Around 94% of the state’s teaching corps are fully licensed educators, with the vacancies and emergency-credential staff at about 5.5%. Comparatively, other states have seen emergency-credential use soar to more than 20%, the Department of Education official says.

“That’s not to say we don’t have some acute challenges in some areas, but we’ve also had 46 districts this year report zero vacancies, and over those 14 also had zero teachers using emergency credentials,” the official explains. “Now we’re zooming in on those areas to see what’s happening in those bright spots. We know that there are likely several things going on in concert, and we want to learn more so we can share those practices to other districts where they might be applicable.”

There’s also a double-edged challenge of creating a pathway into the classroom then keeping those new hires on board. The state is hiring at a faster rate than retirements occur, the official says, and a robust pipeline is in place and being enhanced to keep those stats high.

“We have the Teaching as a Profession Program, or TAP I, which is mostly for high school students,” the official says, “where students explore teaching as a career at a time when they are looking at their options. TAP I culminates with a capstone course and a practicum element.”

That’s joined by a Grow Your Own teacher licensure program that has gone through two rounds of grant funding that has provided $6.5 million to date. It allows school districts to fund programs that allow individuals to become educators at no cost, the official says, through residency programs and other offerings.

The state also was the first to launch a federally registered apprenticeship program, which will swell to 400 candidates this fall and hopefully expand to 600 by fall 2024. This program also is offered at no cost, and as a bonus has posted a 16% diversity rate among participants.

“That work has allowed us to ensure we’re meeting classroom needs now, and also preparing a pipeline that meets the quantity and quality needs of the state,” the official says. “The goal is to make sure teachers are as prepared as possible, and also make sure they are going to be successful.”

However, the Tennessee Education Association, which represents educators, says burnout is real and salary boosts are welcome but are not an across-the-board fix. TEA officials say teachers continue to leave the market out of concern over new legislation regarding what can be taught – or even said – in the classroom setting.

“Educator pay is a critical factor in decision-making about whether to join and stay in the profession,” Tanya T. Coats, a Knox County educator and current TEA president. “The educator recruitment and retention crisis can be, in part, blamed on the fact that many educators can make more money in less-stressful jobs outside of education. Increasing base pay has been connected to attracting more and higher-quality teaching candidates, and districts that offer higher pay have had lower levels of teacher attrition, both in terms of moving to another district and leaving the profession altogether.”

Political interference

While educators are pleased to see the state and districts stepping up in terms of salaries and benefits, they also fear what they see as legislative overreach.

For example, the Teacher Paycheck Protection Act removed districts’ ability to provide automatic payroll deductions for professional employee organization, or union, dues.

A law signed by Gov. Bill Lee in 2021 makes teaching unworkable, the TEA argues, and a lawsuit filed by a group of teachers in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, Nashville Division, in late July seeks to have it nullified.

The law, which took effect during the 2021-22 school year, allows the Tennessee Education Commissioner to withhold funds from schools and districts that teach any of 14 concepts involving racism, sexism, bias and other social issues that lawmakers believed to be cynical and divisive.

It did not, the lawsuit charges, issue its mandate in clear, explicit terms, thus violating the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“It’s this thing hanging over you all the time,” Rebecca Dickenson, an elementary school librarian in East Tennessee and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, told The Washington Post. Adding she and her colleagues wonder whether the state values their profession: “Do they want teachers, or not?”

“The state’s prohibited concepts law puts teachers in an impossible position,” Coats says. “Under this law, they can put their professional standing at risk for teaching the Tennessee State Standards with state-approved books and materials. TEA filed the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law because it prohibits the teaching of core subjects in Tennessee State Standards developed by Tennesseans and deprives students of a quality education.

“The highly subjective language of the law sets teachers and districts up for baseless complaints while using state-approved classroom materials,” Coats charges. “Educators have already spent countless hours trying to understand and navigate the law’s unclear requirements. Things like this make our state a less desirable place to teach.”

The TEA says that, in its analysis, these issues create situations that a pay raise or continuing education can’t fully address.

“Teachers are not just randomly deciding to leave the profession, and the next generation has not just mysteriously lost interest in becoming teachers,” Coats says. “In the last several years, state leaders have prioritized high-stakes standardized tests, failed to provide meaningful raises in educator salaries, leveled unwarranted attacks on the professional integrity of Tennessee teachers and sat on billions in state surpluses while districts struggle to provide the resources students need to succeed.”

“Districts are doing the best they can with the resources they have, but we are going to see this problem continue – and likely grow – if the state doesn’t get serious about providing the support, resources and respect needed to recruit and retain the best educators for Tennessee students,” she says.

The TEA would like to see three changes, as Coats lays them out: “TEA believes the three most important factors in recruiting and retaining the best educators are to increase pay and benefits, improve working conditions – which are our students’ learning conditions – and treat public school educators with the respect they deserve as professionals.”

Nashville offers incentives

At the local level, district officials say they are trying to stay out of the political fray while also making sure that teachers, support staff and students are all receiving what they need.

“Hiring teachers and staff can be a bit of a challenge,” says Amber Tyus, executive director of talent strategy for Metro Nashville Public Schools. “This year, it’s been going pretty well for us, because we’re seeing a rise in the number of individuals who want to work in the education industry, and who see teaching as something rewarding.”

Still, Tyus says, in a post-COVID world there are still substantial roadblocks for the nation’s 42nd-largest school district.

“We’re fighting against the gig economy,” she says. “People want to be more transient, do more remote work, and this industry does not allow for that. Also, to be a teacher requires a formalized education or certification in most cases, and we must ensure that we are meeting the required credentials needed to put an individual in a classroom. That can be a challenge, because obtaining those elements can be costly.”

The state’s emergency certification action and other education-oriented programs have been “a huge help” to districts across the state, she says.

“The state’s making allowances for individuals who may not have the specific accreditation to teach has been very beneficial,” she says. “If you have a bachelor’s degree, you may be eligible for an emergency license permit to teach in an area of content that you choose, just not pre-K, special education and some other areas. It has really opened the door, and we can apply for that license on their behalf. We’ve already applied for upward of 230 emergency licenses for this school year alone.”

Metro has around 5,000 teaching positions across its system and onboards between 600-900 new teachers annually. This year has held steady, Tyus says, with hiring ahead of schedule to fill about 70 fewer vacancies than last year. She credits pay raises fueled by state and local funds as a big part of staff retention for teachers and other staff positions.

“People are staying with us because we are proving to them that we’re an organization that will support them,” she says. “We’ve increased our starting salary by about 14% for new teachers, and we are now the highest-paying district in the state for new teachers. That’s very beneficial for someone coming out of an undergrad program. We’re getting teachers coming from other states now, because we’re paying, in one case, more than $10,000 for a new teacher. We want to continue to lead that charge.”

Metro Schools also wants to create a pipeline, so like the state it’s working with area high schools and universities to promote teaching as a profession.

“We want to continue some wonderful programs that expose students to the teaching industry and let them know there are avenues to support them throughout their education and into their professional careers,” she says. “We also go out into the community, to churches, community organization meetings, career fairs, well beyond the classroom. From support staff to teachers and administrators, we want to grow our own, help people finish school or a graduate degree, and find a pathway into teaching.”