Teacher pay raise amount questioned after Lee announcement

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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, center, and his wife, Maria, leave the House Chamber after Lee gave his State of the State Address Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A day after Gov. Bill Lee boasted he was proposing the largest investment in teacher pay in Tennessee history, top administration officials acknowledged the addition wouldn’t necessarily result in big pay raises for the state’s educators.

Finance and Administration Commissioner Stuart McWhorter told lawmakers Tuesday it was Lee’s “intent” for teachers to receive a 4% raise under the governor’s recently unveiled spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year. However, due to the state’s complicated school funding formula, teachers could get a smaller pay bump.

Lee, a Republican who’s entering his second year as governor, kicked off Monday’s State of the State address by announcing he wanted an additional $117 million to boost teacher pay. The announcement was part of several large education initiatives designed to improve literacy rates and address student behavioral health.

“Am I interpreting your response … correctly to say that you’re telling us that our classroom teachers can expect a 4% increase in their salaries this year?” asked Republican Senate Caucus Chairman Ken Yager during a budget briefing Tuesday.

“The intent is that,” McWhorter responded. “I know and understand that there are challenges related to getting those raises to the teachers in the classroom.”

During a similar briefing for the House, Republican Rep. Jim Coley also stressed to McWhorter that teachers should receive pay raises with the $117 million.

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers say that even with the large funding boost, teachers still need more money.

“Tennessee teachers deserve to see a real pay increase in their paychecks, “ said Sen. Brenda Gilmore in a statement. “But already today, the finance commissioner wavered when he was asked whether take home pay for teachers would actually go up.”

Known as the Basic Education Program, Tennessee’s school funding formula includes 45 components that are all used to determine how much funding each school should receive for teacher salaries and other expenses.

It’s long been criticized for being complicated and outdated. It’s even faced lawsuits led by school boards for falling short of Tennessee’s constitutional obligation to provide students with a “free, adequate, and equitable education.”

“What we’ve seen is that across the state some districts use it for competitive salary components, some use it for additional investments in terms of personnel,” said Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn told The Associated Press on Monday.

“(The) intent is to increase the salaries of our teachers who are in districts right now. But there is some flexibility provided at the local level so I couldn’t speak to how everybody uses the formula,” Schwinn added.

Last year, lawmakers asked the Department of Education to study teacher pay raises under the funding formula and will be releasing that report this fall.

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