By Lisa Fingeroot, The Tennessean
Tennessee teachers marshaled their forces and House Democrats hurled insults at Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman on Thursday over concerns that teachers will lose money if the state adopts a controversial plan today to require merit pay.
The pay plan, part of a drive to boost student test scores, would eliminate traditional salary increases for teachers based solely on years of experience and advanced degrees. The state Board of Education is expected to approve it today. Members already gave the proposal a nod of approval in April when Huffman presented it.
The Tennessee Education Association, the state's only teacher union and largest professional organization, opposed the pay plan from the beginning and has been assembling a group to show opposition at today's meeting. TEA also has been distributing a pay chart supporting its claim that teachers would lose money under the plan.
House Democrats amped up the opposition Thursday when they called a news conference to oppose the plan and throw their support behind the union.
"It's hard to find a commissioner in the history of Tennessee that has assembled a more broad track record of complete failure than Commissioner Huffman," said state Rep. Mike Stewart, a Democrat from Nashville. "Everything this guy has done - every experiment he has tried has so far - has ended in failure, so it's shocking that we would still be listening to this same person."
Stewart was joined by several other Democrats, including state Rep. Gloria Johnson, a teacher from Knoxville, who said she vehemently opposes the pay plan because it eliminates most raises for years of experience and advanced degrees. That's like breaking a promise made to teachers who have been working for years on getting advanced degrees, the Democrats said.
Johnson said many experienced teachers also worry that bonuses would be unfairly distributed.
Huffman responded to the criticism in a written statement. "It is unfortunate that some groups and elected officials are presenting inaccurate information," he wrote. "It is against Tennessee law for any school district to cut a teacher's pay. Additionally, this administration has added more than $130 million in state money for teacher salaries over the past three years. We will continue to look for ways to increase teacher pay, decrease state mandates, and increase local control of school decisions."
Under the plan, no teacher could earn less than he or she currently earns, and the step pay raises usually received at six years and 11 years of experience are included as safeguards.
Huffman said the plan is not a pure merit pay plan because each district can determine how it will differentiate pay. For example, Tennessee certified only 50 chemistry teachers last year, and districts might use a larger salary to attract a chemistry teacher.
While the TEA's chart shows the state-mandated base pay of teachers staying almost flat except for the two step increases, it does not include any amounts for the bonuses and raises that could be earned under Huffman's plan.
Mixed reaction from teachers Teachers from Trousdale County, where a differentiated plan is being piloted, expressed support for the way they are paid.
"I think it's a great plan," said fourth-grade teacher Chris Freeman. "I think it rewards teachers for doing a superb job. It's tailor-made for me. I'm in charge of my own destiny. I control my own children and my own scores."
His colleague, Laura Wilson, chose not to join the alternative plan. "I was scared to take a risk," she said. She admits to being disappointed, however, when she realized she lost about $4,000 in bonuses by not being in the plan.
Rutherford County special education teacher Jennifer Tidwell is so concerned about all the changes being made for teachers that she is considering another profession.
"It's like you're running and kicking sand and not getting anywhere," she said. "They keep moving the goal."
Tidwell's students tend to have individual education plans that can include very simple tasks that cannot be tested. She worries that her achievements might go undocumented for determining pay raises.
"That's what I am kind of afraid of," she said. "I don't have a problem with merit pay, but I have a problem with the way (achievement is) measured."
In Trousdale County, special education teachers are hard to find, so they are rewarded with a bonus every year for working in the system. High school chemistry and physics teachers also are rewarded.
"We're kind of like a guinea pig," said system Director Clint Satterfield. "I think the main goal is to improve teacher quality, because if we improve the quality of the teacher, we will improve the outcome for students."