Governor Bill Haslam fired back at criticism Wednesday about a budget amendment that takes away a 2% pay increase for K-12 teachers he proposed two months ago.
“I did want to comment on what was said about some of the budget challenges we have,” declared the governor as he gathered reporters briefly before a National Walking Day event on the steps of the Capitol. “Somehow, the idea that we have not been doing our part to fund education when we have been when we have been leading the country, I think is a misconception I wanted to clear up.”
Headlines of most Tennessee newspapers and newscasts from television stations carried stinging comments from teachers and education groups after the governor announced on Monday the elimination of the teacher payraises as part of a $150 million reduction in his 2014-2015 budget.
One of those comments came from Oakland High English teacher Jim Gifford who was lobbying lawmakers at Legislative Plaza as a representative of the Rutherford County chapter of the Tennessee Education Association.
“Now he is backing out and it feels like he is being betrayed,” Gifford told News 2 on Tuesday.
The governor responded to such comments by saying “teacher salaries, these are NEA statistics (National Education Association) have increased at double the national average in Tennessee since we have been in office (2011).
His office also a provided a fact sheet touting education spending.
One item said, “We've committed more than $130 million since 2011 in new, recurring funds for teacher salaries, translating into the average Tennessee teacher earning $50,000 per year.”
When asked how about convincing teachers, the governor responded, ” There is a difference between teachers and the teachers unions, but I think its important that they understand this is the last thing we want to do.”
Mr. Haslam finished the short session with reporters by answering a questioned he posed about the teachers' salaries.
“Is this something we want to improve every time we have a chance to address in the budget–you bet,” said the governor.
While his comments were made to reporters, his real audience might be legislators in his own majority party.
Many are privately grumbling or fuming that the budget cutbacks could have gone elsewhere in a $32 billion overall state budget.
Some are looking at the governor's proposed Tennessee Promise program which would allow free tuition to any graduating high school senior, but none are willing yet to go on the record.
“Just wait,” said one. “There are a bunch of us working on some things.”