There were many months last year when the balance in Nikki Deese’s bank account teetered at about $150 as she waited for her next paycheck.
Deese is a third grade teacher in Metro Nashville Public Schools, and her $44,300-a-year salary wasn’t nearly enough to cover the $50,000 in student loan debt she took on to get her master’s in education. Not to mention her share of the mortgage and the $100 to $200 she spent out of her own pocket every month for classroom supplies.
She became the school yearbook adviser for an additional $660 stipend and took a second job on weekends to bring in an extra $300 a month, but the burden on her bank account didn’t dissipate.
“Financials puts so much strain and stress and anxiety on teachers,” Deese said. “You can’t stay completely focused on what’s in front of you. …
“I have a great day with a student, and my student loan debt is still there. I have a great interaction with a parent, and I still have to pay my mortgage.”
While Nashville booms, many of its roughly 6,000 public school teachers live paycheck to paycheck, trying to pay for basic needs.
Poor salaries are driving high rates of teacher turnover, particularly in struggling schools. It comes at a time when Nashville’s growing inequities are leaving behind children most in need of stability.
Teachers will get a 4.5% raise this year, and while starting pay for new Metro teachers slowly has climbed, years of budget constraints and a rejiggering of the pay scale mean mid-career teachers’ salaries have stagnated or fallen.
A teacher with 10 years of classroom experience today is earning up to $1,600 less now than two years ago, according to the district’s salary schedules.
One result of low teacher pay: Children in 171 classrooms were without a certified teacher almost three weeks into the school year.
“We appreciate the raise, but years of experience are now worth less and less,” said Amanda Kail, president of the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association, a teachers union.
“It’s fairly demoralizing for teachers who have decided to stay with this work that the longer we stay, the less our experience is going to be valued.”
Tony Majors, the district’s human resources director, notes that pay is not the only consideration for teachers. Many weigh their career decisions also factoring in benefits, commute times and access to child care.
But pay is a top priority, he said. Majors will next month unveil a “compensation study” to the school board that will include recommendations for pay increases.
Studying the issue is the first step to understanding a problem and seeking a solution, but Kail noted the MNEA presented a similar study two years ago and the district has yet to act on it.
‘We definitely don’t get to enjoy all that Nashville has to offer’
When Deese found her calling in education, she left a job as an event director behind.
She went to Lipscomb University, pursued a master’s degree in education and happily accepted her first job teaching second grade in one of Metro Nashville Public Schools’ low-performing charter schools serving mostly at-risk kids.
In a classroom of 30 children, most came from trauma-filled backgrounds, Deese said. Five students had Individualized Education Plans, which outline the steps required to meet a child’s specialized learning needs and hold schools accountable for executing the plan.
Deese arrived at 7:15 every morning and stayed until after 7 most nights grading papers and planning. She said she did not have enough support staff to help her meet the heightened needs of her students. She said she spent a couple of hours a day just trying to get her students to come out from underneath their desks.
She came home beaten down. Tired and cranky, she said, often lightheaded and dizzy from anxiety.
“I couldn’t master that and everything else going on,” she said, “so I felt like I wasn’t enough.”
And she wasn’t making enough money to offset that feeling.
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A complicated funding formula known as the Basic Education Program, or BEP, doles out state dollars to districts based on their tax base and revenues. Which means when Nashville’s revenue grows — as it has done from tourism, development and attracting new businesses — its share of education funds actually shrinks. It’s based on the assumption the city is bringing in enough of its own money to support its schools without state help.
So, when Gov. Bill Lee approved more than $71 million in teacher pay raises across the state, Nashville — Tennessee’s largest school district — got just $1.4 million.
Several school districts, including Nashville, are suing the state, saying it underfunds their needs. And statewide, Tennessee continues to lag behind. Average teacher pay ranks 35th in the nation, according to a 2019 survey by the National Education Association.
Teachers protest across country
Compensation frustrations have erupted across the country this year, with teachers walking out of classrooms from California to West Virginia.
In many of those cities, teachers received an outpouring of community support.
In Oakland, California, hundreds of parents and students rallied to encourage striking teachers. In West Virginia, coal miners unions threw their political weight behind teachers’ demand for higher pay. In Denver, teachers on picket lines got coffee from parents and letters of support from their students — some of whom joined the picket lines.
“It’s been a bigger power that people want to be a part of,” said Rob Gould, acting president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “Real school reform. Real support for students.”
It is illegal for teachers to strike in Tennessee, but in Nashville, Metro Nashville Public Schools teachers joined the rallying cry across the nation by staging a series of “sick-outs” in May and demanding better pay.
In response, Mayor David Briley rolled out two separate pay increases earlier this year: a 3% across-the-board raise effective in July and an additional incremental raise in January. In total, teachers got a 4.5% raise this year.
Teachers say the funding doesn’t make up for years of rollbacks on the district’s pay scale, which dictates salaries are tied to years of experience and level of education.
Briley, who is running for reelection, pledged during a mayoral debate if he continues in the job he would “do a comprehensive pay plan.”
“We are going to fund it. No matter what. No matter what,” Briley said.
His opponent, John Cooper, promised to invest half of all new city revenues into education and boosting teacher pay.
“You’ve got to fund a career ladder, not just starting pay,” Cooper said.
Experience doesn’t necessarily pay
To recruit more teachers, Metro Schools boosted starting teachers’ pay 49%.
Between 2003 and 2019, the salaries for beginning teachers with a college degree increased from about $30,000 to $44,600 — keeping pace with the increased cost of living in Nashville, according to a 2018 analysis by MNPA that recommended an overhaul of the district’s pay scale.
First-year teachers’ salaries — which range from $44,663 for someone with a bachelor’s degree to $50,058 for a new teacher with a doctorate — are competitive with other cities.
But as the district steered more money to new teachers, it pared back mid-career-level salaries.
The pay scale was adjusted to lower the base salary for teachers with years of experience. For example, in the 2017-18 school year, a teacher 10 years on the job earned $48,410. This year, the salary for a 10-year teacher is $47,475.
Teachers with master’s and doctorate degrees also saw pay scale changes, and are now being paid $1,600 less in some cases, according to the district’s salary documents.
In total, college-educated teachers with 13-plus years teaching saw a 9% increase between 2003 and 2017 — lagging far behind inflation and even further behind Nashville’s soaring housing costs.
The disparity often causes teachers to begin their careers in Nashville but move within a few years to other districts with higher salaries and lower living costs, Kail said.
Priced out of Nashville
When she became a full-time teacher, Deese said she felt forced to move from Antioch where she rented a place with her boyfriend for $1,500 a month. They relocated to Kingston Springs for a cheaper cost of living.
An analysis for The Tennessean performed by the online real estate database company Zillow shows the lowest-paid teachers in Nashville must spend 50% of their income on a mortgage or about a third of their income on rent.
Nashville’s newfound prosperity is perversely working against its ability to get much-needed state funding to pay teachers.
The trendy restaurants, pro sports games and concert venues that have made Nashville so attractive to tourists and travel writers are often beyond a teacher’s budget.
Recently engaged, 31-year-old Deese is trying to save for her wedding. It’s a challenge. In addition to her own student loan burden, her fiance also carries $100,000 of his own education debt.
In a hip city bursting with new restaurants and bars, the young couple feels strapped. They limit date nights “out” to once a month. They occasionally get takeout, but as far as “nice dinners or drinks with friends or anything, I just can’t,” Deese said.
“We definitely don’t get to enjoy all that Nashville has to offer on our own — only if we’re invited to games and things,” she said. “We can’t really afford to do any of the extra stuff right now.”
Majors said raising teacher pay is a pressing concern to district officials.
“The cost to live in Davidson County is increasing, and our teacher salaries have to keep pace if they live in Davidson County,” he said.
Teacher pay is really about the students
Teacher pay isn’t just a compensation and quality-of-life issue.
Kids don’t know how much their math or English teacher gets paid, but they do notice when a trusted teacher or mentor one year is gone the next.
In a quarter of all Nashville public schools, teacher turnover tops 30%. That means, on average, nearly 1 in 3 teachers is departing each year. That is disrupting for all students, but particularly in the city’s poorest schools where students have the greatest need for teachers to stay.
“The most trauma-filled lives need the most consistent presence of people,” said Barbara Stengel, a Vanderbilt professor who has examined the social, political and economic aspects of schooling. “You need loving bodies who are there day after day after day.”
Metro Schools recently introduced a $5,000 one-time bonus for some newly recruited teachers in the city’s 23 lowest-performing schools, or Priority Schools.
But there is no financial plan for teacher retention, and that leads to instability for the students, Stengel said.
Kathleen Bell is a sixth grade teacher at H.G. Hill Middle Prep.
Now in her fifth year of teaching, she is the only member of her original eight-person team who has stayed. Bell loves her school environment, and that is not the issue, she said. It’s that teachers can make more money teaching in a different county or in a different profession and so they leave.
“I think that says a lot,” she said. “We are losing people at such a rapid rate. … We’re not getting to build those relationships with students and family members. … We’re just not the best teachers when we are in survival mode.”
Memphis boosted teacher pay
There are potential solutions being piloted in Tennessee and across the country.
The Memphis-Shelby County District structured teacher pay to attract good teachers to low-performing schools in danger of being taken over by the state.
Teachers who perform well on the district’s evaluation system are eligible to teach at these designated schools and get an additional $6,000 a year, according to Keith Williams, executive director of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association.
Schools in what is known as the “Innovation Zone” have an extra hour of class every day, offer bonuses to the top teachers and leaders to work there, and provide additional coaching for those teachers. It costs Shelby County an average of $600,000 extra per school each year.
Part of the funding came from a $90 million infusion from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and additional grants from the Obama administration as part of an ambitious plan to turn around one of the nation’s most struggling school districts.
In July, Sharon Griffin, who spearheaded the bonus system in Shelby County, became Nashville schools’ newly hired chief of innovation.
Denver Public Schools strikes create results
In Denver, teachers also saw wage hikes.
The first day of Denver’s teachers strike in February was bitter cold.
Amy Winter, a seventh grade science teacher and an 18-year veteran of Denver Public Schools, bundled up in her warmest clothes in front of her school at 6 a.m. to chant and fight for more financial security.
She rallied alongside hundreds of Denver Public Schools teachers who picketed on sidewalks and mobilized at the Colorado Capitol, staging the 207-school district’s first strike in 25 years.
The results, Winter said, were amazing. Parents from her school brought coffee and food. Principals came out and cheered their teachers on. Students delivered handwritten letters of support. Some of the kids walked the line with their teachers and then walked into school — others stayed outside with the teachers all day.
“It felt great,” Winter said. “It felt really powerful. It was scary, because you wanted to make sure that everybody felt safe. But who else is going to fight the fight? Nobody. No one else will.
“The job itself is amazing,” Winter said, “but the career is not sustainable.”
This year, Denver teachers reap the benefits of that financial fight.
The district added incentives to recruit and retain teachers at low-performing schools and those serving children from high-need areas.
Denver offers an additional $2,000 a year for working in high-poverty schools and in hard-to-staff positions. It’s added $1,000 a year in tuition reimbursement for teachers who want to pursue additional schooling, up to $6,000 total.
Not only did teachers get a raise, but veteran teachers with more than 10 years of experience moved to a higher pay scale even without pursuing advanced educational degrees.
Winter’s pay increased between 15% and 18% this year versus last, she said.
The result, said Gould of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, is teachers came back with a sense of pride this year. And retention was significantly improved. The year of the strike, Denver Public Schools had 900 new teachers. This school year, that number was down to 550, he said.
Anecdotally, Gould said he met teachers who moved to Denver from other states, including Georgia and South Carolina, because of the changes and support from the community.
Teacher pay is not going to fix all of Denver’s education challenges, Winter acknowledged. Teachers still have students who can’t read or write at grade level, particularly in schools with a large number of students who receive free and reduced lunch.
However, increased teacher pay is expected to help with retention of good teachers, bringing stability to students, Winter said. And “when a kid feels safe and can feel vulnerable and take risks, then we are all learning,” Winter said.
The biggest lesson from Denver’s teacher pay movement, Winter said, is that “it takes everybody to come to the table.”
“It can’t just be teachers or the influencers or the elected officials in the community. It’s got to be everybody of all backgrounds, because everybody’s voice matters — from single moms to retirees to young professionals who have chosen not to have kids.
“Everybody is a stakeholder.”
What does pay look like for Nashville teachers?
The salary schedule for Nashville’s public school teachers has both “steps” and seven “lanes.”
“Steps” correlate to a teacher’s years of experience. “Lanes” represent a teacher’s level of education. The first lane is for teachers who have a bachelor’s degree only, the second lane is for a master’s and so on, all the way up to a doctorate.
Educators move into the next lane whenever they reach that level of education. Moving a lane nets educators a bigger raise than moving a step.
Starting pay for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree this year is $44,663.89, according to the district’s certified salary schedule. A teacher with the same level of education and 10 years of experience makes $47,475.79. Someone with a master’s degree and a decade of experience jumps to a new lane and gets a slight pay bump to $48,801.40, while a teacher with a doctorate and that experience makes $57,606.87.
Reach Anita Wadhwani at email@example.com or 615-259-8092 and on Twitter @AnitaWadhwani. Reach Jessica Bliss at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-259-8253 and on Twitter @jlbliss, and please support local journalism.
Dismissed: Nashville’s schoolkids left behind in a city on the rise
Nashville’s “it city” status continues to rise, attracting new tourists, development, money and attention. But the economic boom has not changed the struggle for Metro Nashville Public Schools, where disparities rooted in race, income and social status persist.
Not every child gets an equal chance at success.
The divide between the prosperity of the city and education opportunities for its children has only widened.
During the next year, The Tennessean will examine how Nashville’s public schools became so unequal, and how the city can provide the same opportunities to all its students. Read more at dismissed.tennessean.com and share feedback with us at email@example.com.