Gov. Bill Haslam wants Tennessee to become the nation’s fastest-improving state when it comes to teacher pay. In the last two years alone, he’s shepherded more than $200 million in increases. But how the increase is reflected in teachers’ paychecks varies a lot from district to district.
That’s because school districts across Tennessee have vastly different resources, and choose to invest their state funding in different ways.
State government disburses money to districts according to its Basic Education Program, or BEP, a formula based on many factors. Districts have some flexibility on how to spend the money. The state’s only directives are that funds earmarked for educators’ salary and benefits must be spent accordingly, and funds allocated for classroom needs must be spent either on classroom needs or salaries and benefits.
Under the BEP Enhancement Act passed this spring, the legislature specified that districts with weighted average teacher salaries below the state’s weighted average salary of $43,216 must spend money allocated for teacher pay directly on salaries. This year, 78 of Tennessee’s 146 districts fall in that category. The remaining school systems can choose to spend their state allocation on either salaries or health benefits. (Weighted average salaries take into account differences in training and experience across districts.)
But even in the 78 districts where the money must be spent directly on teacher salaries, not all teachers will feel it. A district can choose to invest its portion of the money on only one group of teachers, such as teachers with high evaluation scores or in hard-to-staff schools, rather than spreading among all its teachers.
The state won’t know until this fall exactly how districts are distributing this year’s increased teacher pay dollars, or how the investment will impact the state’s ranking in teacher pay. Tennessee now ranks 39th in the nation with an unweighted average salary of $47,742, according to a May report from the National Education Association.
Last year, teachers’ average weighted salaries ranged from $38,580 in Pickett County to $54,187 in Shelby County.
For 2016-17, as part of the state’s biggest-ever investment in K-12 education without a tax increase, Tennessee’s legislature added almost $105 million in state spending for teacher pay and also approved $29.5 million to fund a 12th month of teacher insurance. The increases came on the tails of an extra $98 million for teacher pay in 2015-16.