Most of Tennessee’s public school teachers feel that they’re in the cross-hairs of a full-scale assault by the state government, and who can blame them?
In an age when blaming teachers for all of society’s woes seems like the hip thing to do, from Wisconsin to Florida, Tennessee is also pushing all sorts of “reform” that seems like little more than an effort to hog-tie teachers’ efforts to do what they’re supposed to do — teach — while at the same time demanding more than ever before in terms of performance.
As state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, put it in an opinion piece for The Tennessean last week: “First, (the administration of Gov. Bill Haslam) took away our teachers’ job security by getting rid of tenure. Next, it stripped our teachers of the right to negotiate on behalf of students for classroom supplies, textbooks and even basic janitorial services. Then, it took away our teachers self-esteem by rushing through an ill-conceived evaluation system that will grade them on students who never set foot in their classroom. Couple these changes with rising health insurance costs and a new state retirement plan that is more expensive but less secure, and you have a recipe for disaster.”
Granted, Fitzhugh’s pen engaged in a bit of hyperbole as he wrote the column for The Tennessean. Tenure, while a good program in theory, made it way too hard to get rid of under-performing teachers who have no business being in the classroom. It needed to be reformed. And collective bargaining placed way too much power in the hands of teachers unions that have little interest in correcting genuine problems with education, which is why many more states than just Tennessee have already limited collective bargaining rights or are looking to do so.
But using a broad broom to sweep years’ worth of policies out the door and into the street in one fell swoop hardly seems like the most reasonable approach.
The latest move by the state is a vote by the Tennessee Board of Education — at the request of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman — to revoke a teacher’s license if certain student benchmarks are not met. That move has not yet been finalized, passed only on first reading. But it soon will be.
The move follows a vote by the same board to ditch state-mandated salary schedules for teachers. Local school districts now have the ability to introduce pay schedules that are tied to student performance, while the state’s message is that experience and education are no longer valued.
The Haslam administration has been careful to point out that the new state salary schedule is not a pay cut for teachers already on the job. But that is merely semantics; the sort of rhetoric that is so prevalent in politics.
A teacher already on the job may not have his or her current pay cut, but with fewer built-in pay raises based on years of experience — the new policy cuts those automated raises from 21 to four over the course of a career — and no incentive to obtain advanced degrees beyond master’s programs, it’s hard to term it anything but a pay cut. At the very least, it is a freeze in pay, one that could — and for thousands of teachers in Tennessee, will — result in far fewer pay raises going forward.
Critics of the plan say that a new teacher could make $3,000 per year less starting out, and $61,000 less over the course of a 30-year career. This in a state that already ranks 41st in the nation in teacher salaries.
By comparison, Kentucky and Georgia pay their teachers far more, and in counties like Scott and Fentress, it’s pretty easy for well-qualified teachers to jump school districts for a not-insignificant pay raise. Border counties like ours and like those all along the TN-KY and TN-GA borders have lost qualified teachers to neighboring states for years, and it’s hard to believe that moves like this one won’t hasten those defections.
Supporters of the state board’s move point out that employees in the private sector often have job performance tied to their salary. That’s true. And, to be sure, there should be some performance standards for teachers. But I can’t think of a single private industry that does not also pay its employees based on their experience and level of education obtained.
We all know that there are plenty of teachers currently in the public school system who don’t deserve the money they make each week. But we also know that most deserve more money than they make each week. My own school days grow a little more distant in the rearview mirror each year, but I still well remember my teachers. I had a lot of good ones, and cannot remember a single bad one. Surely I didn’t experience some incredible stroke of luck over the course of the 13 years I spent in the public school system. And if my own experience is more or less typical, then surely we can agree that our teachers are worth more than we’re currently paying them — not less.
Perhaps I should have delivered this disclaimer at the top: my wife is a school teacher. Less money on her paycheck means less money in our family bank account. And my original college path was education; I was about a semester-and-a-half away from being able to obtain certification in elementary education when I switched directions.
But one doesn’t have to be biased towards educators to see that paying teachers less in a state that already ranks near the bottom in teacher salaries is probably not the best approach to solving our education woes.
■ Contact Independent Herald editor Ben Garrett at firstname.lastname@example.org.