Tenn. public school teachers balk at bigger classes

On January 14, 2012, in News 2012, by Mark Norris

Haslam ideas about salary also draw fire

By Jane Roberts, CommercialAppeal.com
January 14, 2012

Public school teachers, still smarting over losing their collective bargaining rights, are furious that raises for seniority may be the next to go.

Gov. Bill Haslam proposes scrapping the state teacher pay schedule — including bumps for longer years on the job and advanced degrees — for a plan that would let school boards decide teachers’ worth.

“Districts know best and they should have the flexibility to do what they think they need to do,” Haslam says.

In particular, he wants districts to be able to pay teachers in hard-to-staff schools and subjects more.

To do it, he proposes eliminating limits on average class sizes to reduce the number of teachers overall and free up cash.

“I am disappointed Gov. Haslam chose to begin the 2012 session with such a blatant attack on Tennessee’s public schools,” said Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerford. “In a time when we all need to be working together to improve student learning, these proposals are counterproductive to our effort to keep students as our top priority.”

While Haslam says no teacher will be asked to take a pay cut, their salaries could be frozen if their districts chose not to pay the automatic raises built into the state schedule.

In Memphis, a first-year teacher makes $40,065 and gets a $983 raise in the second year. With a master’s degree, second-year pay jumps to $44,098.

The schedule tops out after 18 years. A MCS teacher with that much seniority and a master’s degree currently earns $61,023.

“Unlimited class size and lower wages would be the death blow to public education,” said Keith Williams, president of the teachers’ union in Memphis.

“How are you going to raise the standards and be more effective with fewer resources and more to do?”

Haslam does not propose lifting the cap on maximum class size, but wants to increase the average class size. Middle and high school teachers are more likely to have the maximum number.

Maximum class size ranges from 25 students in K-3 to 35 in high schools.

Last year, teachers lost their collective bargaining rights in Tennessee, whittling away their power to negotiate sick time and other benefits as a group.

The bills are sponsored by Mark Norris, R-Collierville, in the Senate, and Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, in the House.

Summerford says the larger classes will reduce graduation rates and increase juvenile incarceration rates.

Haslam says strong teachers, even in larger classes, are more effective than average ones.

By increasing the possibility of higher pay for the best, he hopes the state builds a stronger teacher pool.

“If you give me a choice between class size of 25 and an average teacher or 28 kids and a great teacher, I’ll put my kids in the class with 28 kids every time,” he said.

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