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Tenn. Governor, Wooing Teacher Union, Broadens Merit-Pay Plan

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Reacting to intense opposition from the state's teachers' union, Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has broadened and revised his controversial merit-pay plan to include a larger percentage of less-experienced teachers in the bonus program.

But officials of the Tennessee Education Association (tea) said last week that they still strongly oppose the plan. (See Education Week, Feb. 9 and March 16, 1983.)

The revised version would make 87 percent of the state's teachers eligible for a bonus of at least $1,000 and would lower the top pay incentive for the best teachers from $8,900 to $7,000.

Under the original version, only 35 percent of the state's teachers would have participated in the pay-incentive plan, and the tea objected that too few could benefit from it.

Commissioner of Education Rob-ert L. McElrath said he thought the expanded bonus program did not detract significantly from the original purpose of the plan, which is to single out exceptional teachers and pay them more, while eliminating poor ones through a more rigorous recertification system. "I can live with it," he said of the revision.

The plan breaks the present two-tier certification system into four tiers of teachers, called apprentice, professional, senior, and master teachers. Advancement from one tier to the next is based on proven ability, rather than academic credentials and length of time in the classroom.

Pay Incentives

When Governor Alexander first unveiled the plan in January, he proposed pay incentives only to the top two tiers of teachers--senior and master teachers--who would include an estimated 35 percent of the state's 46,000 teachers in 1986-87, when the plan is fully implemented.

The revised version would include a third and less advanced tier of teachers--professionals--in the pay-incentive program. This group could earn $1,000 bonuses. In order to make funds available for them, proposed salaries for teachers in the top two categories had to be cut, said Stephen Cobb, a Democratic state legislator who helped draft the revisions.

Nevertheless, Mr. Cobb said he thought the new salary incentives, which would peak at $7,000, were "still very substantial," and high enough to be competitive with those in other professions, when added to base salaries, local supplements, and other bonuses.

"We're retaining the notion of fairly substantial pay at the end of the career line," he said. Governor Alexander's intent was to offer a top salary attractive enough to keep teachers in the classroom throughout their careers, he said. At pre-sent, teachers must take administrative posts to earn high salaries, Mr. McElrath said.

The revision would cut $400,000 from the original $116-million annual cost of the merit-pay plan. To finance it and other components of his education plan, Governor Alexander, a Republican, has proposed a one-cent increase in the state's sales tax.

Another compromise being offered to opponents in the revised plan is a reduction in the number of months a teacher must work in order to be eligible for senior- or master-teacher bonuses.

Originally, the Governor insisted that master teachers must sign 12-month contracts, and that senior teachers must sign 11- or 12-month contracts. Mr. McElrath said the Governor included this provision because he wanted to make teaching "a more professional" career. "A part-time profession can't get the same respect," he said.

But in the past few months, many teachers have spoken out against the provision, saying they needed the summer time for nonprofessional responsibilities, Mr. McElrath said. And so, in a compromise move, the revised version opens both master- and senior-teacher bonuses to teachers on 10- and 11-month contracts.

Group Rejects the Plan

Despite these changes, a spokesman for the 36,000-member union said last week that the group still rejects the plan, because it still does not address basic problems such as tenure and evaluation procedures. The tea will release its own new version of a plan late this week.

"We're still backing our own proposal," said Tony Hayes, a tea spokesman in Nashville. "Their plan hasn't addressed some of the issues.''

A tea counterproposal to the Governor's, released March 3, called for an across-the-board pay raise of 10 percent for all state teachers with a minimum of three years of experience and five years of college education. It retains the two-tier certification system, and would modify the composition of the state's teacher-certification board to give greater control to National Education Association members.

Mr. Hayes said the tea objected to the Governor's merit-pay plan in part because of its effect on the tenure law. If, for example, a teacher is not granted a certificate to advance from the apprentice to the professional tier, he or she is left in limbo without any professional safeguards, Mr. Hayes contended. "They [the school districts] don't have to fire him, they don't have to hire him. That's circumventing the tenure law as far as we're concerned."

Under the Governor's proposed new plan, the state certification officers are under no obligation to recertify and rehire an apprentice teacher with a poor evaluation report, even if the teacher has fulfilled his academic and classroom requirements. Under the present system favored by the union, apprentice teachers automatically receive tenure at the end of three years if they have fulfilled the academic-credential requirements.

Representative Cobb said it was too early to know whether the teachers' union will ever accept some of the bold ideas proposed in the Governor's bill. "I don't know if the teachers can go with the concepts of merit pay or outside evaluation groups," he said.

The plan also proposes that evaluation teams, who report to regional certification committees, be composed of people outside the candidate's school district who are not involved in local political issues, said Mr. Cobb. Under the present system, evaluations are completed by local administrators--usually a teacher's school principal, state officials said.

The revised merit-pay proposal is now being considered by the education committees of both houses of the legislature, said Mr. Cobb, and more revising is anticipated.

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