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Va. District Kills Program Tying Teacher Pay to Merit

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Responding to budget pressures and lobbying by teachers' unions, the Fairfax County, Va., school board voted this month to begin phasing out its nationally watched merit-pay system for teachers.

The vote March 11 came one year after the board agreed to cut its budget by suspending the $9 million program for the current school year.

But Superintendent Robert R. Spillane and board members said last week that the issue is likely to be resurrected this summer, when as many as seven new members could be seated on the 11-member board.

"I have every anticipation that July 1, this will come back,'' said Mr. Spillane, who has made the controversial merit-pay program one of his central reforms.

"There is no question in my mind that we will be designing some slightly different approaches, or amended approaches, to merit pay,'' the superintendent added.

The ultimate fate of the program, one of the largest and most widely known of its kind in the nation, has been in doubt for several years.

"The truth of the matter is that the whole pay package has fallen on hard economic times,'' said Carla Yock, one of four board members who voted to retain the system. "I can understand why merit pay has less support.''

Although it endorsed merit pay at the outset, the Fairfax Education Association, which represents more than 6,000 of the county's nearly 10,000 teachers, withdrew its support when the school board altered the program from providing a salary increase to a smaller annual bonus. The union, which has been lobbying hard against the program, now calls it both divisive and ineffective.

Kelly Peaks Horner, the president of the F.E.A., said the union is concerned with "making all teachers' salaries competitive without having to use some kind of gimmick.''

Salaries Sliding

Over all, teachers' salaries in the county, a suburb of Washington, have fallen lower than those in other Northern Virginia districts as the county faced budget shortfalls.

"We have taken a tremendous hit'' in the budget-tightening, Ms. Yock said, "and because we had not been able to give all of our teachers salary increases or steps, average salaries have fallen.''

Although merit pay "was predicated on the idea that salary standards would be high'' across the county, lean economic times have only widened the gulf between teachers who receive merit pay bonuses and those who do not, Ms. Yock said.

Under the system, veteran teachers who pass a rigorous one-year evaluation receive a 9 percent bonus each year for four years.

More than 2,000 teachers have received financial rewards since the system began in 1986.

Like a handful of similar programs across the country, Fairfax County's plan was considered in the forefront of the movement to elevate the teaching profession.

But Ms. Horner contended that the school-reform "pendulum is no longer swinging in the direction'' of merit pay.

The system "does not take into account different teaching styles--that's been a criticism across the country,'' she maintained.

And, in a budget crisis, pay incentives "are always the first thing to go,'' making merit pay's status tenuous at best, she added.

Student Improvement Cited

Supporters of the program, which will be phased out over four years, maintain that it not only insures that ineffective teachers are removed, but that outstanding teachers will remain in the classroom.

And the superintendent argues that a link exists between the onset of merit pay and the improvement in test scores among minority students.

"Everything you want to measure in terms of student achievement is up,'' Mr. Spillane said. "I think everyone agrees that [merit pay] has made a major change.''

But Ms. Horner maintains that the county's teacher-evaluation program is responsible for improvements in the quality of education.

"Nearly 500 teachers have been released since 1986,'' she noted. "We thought the numbers would fall, but they have steadily increased. That shows we're still improving.''

Mr. Spillane, board members, and the Association of Fairfax Professional Educators, which represents many of the veteran teachers, have vowed to renew the fight for pay incentives.

"If we have anything to learn from merit pay, it's that it should be part of the regular salary structure, and not a bonus,'' Mr. Spillane said.

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