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Published in Print: February 2, 2005, as Governors Seek New Teacher-Pay Methods

Governors Seek New Teacher-Pay Methods

Plans Include Merit Pay, Bonuses for Teaching in Struggling Schools

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Two Minnesota school districts are experimenting with new ways to pay teachers. Instead of salary systems based solely on teachers’ experience and education levels, the teachers are being compensated based on their demonstrated skills and on the achievement of their students.

Now, Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants districts across the state to take that approach.

“The way we pay [teachers] is outdated,” the Republican said in his Jan. 18 State of the State Address. “It’s not geared towards accountability for results, and it doesn’t treat teachers like professionals.”

Governors throughout the country are singing a similar refrain as they unveil proposals for this legislative season.

Democrats and Republicans alike are calling for merit pay, pay for performance, and other ways that deviate from the generally inflexible salary schedules under which teachers are paid. Though many of the proposals are still only rough sketches, they reflect governors’ desires to increase teacher salaries.

But because state budgets remain too tight for generous across-the-board raises, and new accountability rules demand significant student-achievement gains, governors want to reward the best teachers, said Michael B. Allen, the program director for teaching quality at the Education Commission of the States.

“By and large, they don’t want to raise teacher salaries without accountability,” said Mr. Allen, who tracks teacher issues for the Denver-based clearinghouse on state education policies.

Alternative methods of paying teachers have been proposed in states as large as California and as small as Rhode Island.

Coast to Coast

In New Mexico, for example, Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, is calling for lawmakers to add $51 million to the state’s new three-tiered pay system, in which teachers earn salary increases by demonstrating how they have improved their skills and the impact they are having on student learning.

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has called for ending the tenure system for K-12 teachers and replacing it with a pay-for-performance system, which would rely on student test scores.

In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry, also a Republican, wants to attract teachers to schools with the lowest student performance by paying them $7,500 above the standard pay.

“Too often, our struggling schools attract our most inexperienced teachers,” Gov. Perry said in his State of the State Address last week. “We need to recruit proven teachers to underperforming schools, teachers who can turn around a campus one child and one classroom at a time.”

Governors of Idaho, Mississippi, and Wisconsin are also proposing alternative-pay options, such as bonuses for raising student test scores or taking tough assignments, for example, and pay for performance based on student test scores.

While Democrats are among those proposing alternative teacher-pay plans, the GOP governors are seeking the most ambitious changes.

Minnesota Expansion

Mr. Pawlenty, Minnesota’s first-term governor, would supplement the budgets of school districts that overhaul traditional pay systems and create different levels of teachers, allowing the best teachers to become master teachers advising a whole school and others to become mentors.

The plan would provide $155 per student in extra state aid to participating districts. The districts also would be allowed to exceed revenue caps to raise $70 per student in local funds, said Bill Walsh, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education.

The $60 million Mr. Pawlenty has proposed over two years would be enough to reach districts serving half the state’s 850,000 K-12 students, Mr. Walsh said.

Mr. Walsh acknowledged that the proposal has drawn the scorn of the statewide teachers’ union. But he pointed out that a federally financed project with similar goals has been supported by teachers and union officials in three Minneapolis schools and in Minnesota’s 2,200-student Waseca school district.

“When we talk to local unions about what it means for their teachers,” he said, “we get more excitement.”

But the president of the Minneapolis teachers’ union said that the teachers in the three Minneapolis schools have supported the federally funded project because its benefits are in addition to—not instead of—the traditional pay schedule.

She said her union wouldn’t support a statewide project that didn’t have similar guarantees.

“I don’t foresee that we’d be taking any giant leaps without knowing that we’d have a pretty secure, soft landing,” said Louise A. Sundin, the president of the 5,500-member Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.

In California, Gov. Schwarzenegger’s plan faces other obstacles.

Other Priorities

His teacher-pay proposal is being overshadowed by a budget proposal that infuriated education groups.

Many education lobbyists say that the governor has lost credibility with the education community and the Democratic- controlled legislature. That’s because, they say, he proposed a fiscal 2006 budget that violates constitutional minimum-funding guarantees and reneges on a handshake deal from last year, when educators agreed to temporary funding cuts in exchange for greater funding this year. ("Schwarzenegger Budget Sparks Controversy," Jan. 19, 2005.)

“We might have been sympathetic to discussing the idea, … but now there is a great deal of trepidation in dealing with this governor,” said Kevin Gordon, the president of School Innovations and Advocacy, a Sacramento-based lobbying and research group that represents several major education groups and school districts.

Vol. 24, Issue 21, Pages 22,28

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