NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Tennessee education leaders are outlining their budget priorities for the next legislative session. Education Commissioner Dr. Penny Schwinn presented the department’s funding requests to Gov. Bill Lee during Wednesday’s budget hearing. They included literacy initiatives and programs to recruit and retain quality teachers.

During a one-on-one interview with News 2, Dr. Schwinn explained how they’re trying to address challenges faced by educators. She said she wants to ensure that teachers get the professional development, support, and resources that they need to be successful.

“I think compensation is going to be a big one. So, continuing to increase the amount of money going to teacher compensation, and retirements and benefits — that is a massive component of what total compensation would have,” she said. “I think, second, the state offers a lot of opportunities for teachers to get endorsements in other areas. And we will pay the cost of that. So I might be a teacher who now wants to maybe explore special education or ESL or math or science, we can help teachers with that kind of progress and movement in their professions.”

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According to the Economic Policy Institute, average teacher salaries in Tennessee are 23.8% lower than other college-educated professionals. That puts our state in the bottom half at 33rd in the country.

“Coming from a family of teachers, and mostly teachers in my extended family and immediate family, I just think it’s the greatest job in the world,” said Dr. Schwinn. “The efforts that are happening around increasing compensation will be important. The minimum salary when I started four years ago was $34,000, we’re now up to $40,000. We need to keep going. But that is a really big increase in it in a relatively short period of time.”

Tennessee became the first state to have a federally recognized teaching apprenticeship program, creating a paid, no-cost pathway to become a teacher.

“One of the things that we talked about several years ago was that all of the federal relief money, it is one-time funding. That is reflected here. So what we committed to is not building our programming assuming any continuity of funding,” Dr. Schwinn said during Wednesday’s budget hearing. “We did say we could come back and say if there are programs that are working, programs with proven outcome, then we would come for consideration to expand or continue those programs over time. That’s what you’ll see in a lot of these requests. They are perfectly capable of being one-time siloed programs but this is an opportunity if we want to expand any of those.”

During the budget hearing, Dr. Schwinn said the state had about 650 teacher vacancies that now have future teachers that are going to be moved through statewide due to the apprenticeship opportunities. Come January 2023, they’ll have 350 candidates through this apprenticeship work in partnership with 40 to 55 districts. That includes 20 candidates through UT-Martin and 80 through Lipsomb University here in Nashville.

“The ‘Grow Your Own’ work that’s getting national attention is going to really help to relieve some of the pressure and getting teachers into the profession,” Dr. Schwinn told News 2.

Grow Your Own has now been replicated in more than two dozen states in the last 18 months. The department wants to continue offering Grow Your Own grants to districts to launch innovative EPP partnerships. Education leaders have also been working with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development to address teacher vacancies.

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“It has been delightful to work with that agency. We’ve been really close partners throughout the apprenticeship work and continue to be. And so very excited about some of the ways that we can use some of those federal dollars to benefit teachers in the long-term. This would be an opportunity to match some of those federal dollars that come into the department of education and labor to provide even more teachers with opportunities to become a teacher at no cost and get them to classrooms earlier with a lot more preparation and support,” Schwinn said during the budget hearing. “Our Grow Your Own grants in addition to the apprenticeship work is really creating opportunities for hundreds of future teachers and is covering the majority of districts in the state.”

There’s also currently a Grow Your Own Center at the University of Tennessee. The Department of Education is celebrating the initiative throughout the month of November.

“The center is I think a really good partner to that because you’ve got some really small districts that they just don’t have the back office to support it. Now they can use the staffing at the UT Grow Your Own Center to be able to have the same opportunities as our larger districts.”

Governor’s Budget Hearing – Education