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Denver Voters Approve Tax Hike to Underwrite Incentive-Based Teacher Pay

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Denver voters have given the go-ahead to a new pay plan for the city’s teachers, capping a nationally watched, six-year drive for the groundbreaking change.

In the Nov. 1 polling, voters agreed to $25 million in additional property taxes to finance the plan, which stops rewarding teachers for years in the classroom and instead recognizes them for raising student achievement, adding to their skills, and teaching where they are needed most. The tax increase, pegged to inflation, amounts initially to $24 per year on every $100,000 of a home’s assessed value.

The measure, ballot question 3A, won a clear victory, with support from 58.5 percent of voters. It had been backed by Denver’s popular mayor, John W. Hickenlooper, the City Council, and other business and civic leaders, as well as a campaign war chest of more than $1 million, mostly from foundations and businesses.

“I’m really pleased by the margin,” said Brad Jupp, the former union activist who led the joint district-union team that devised the pay plan. “What [the plan] had that made it last with the public for six years is a really good idea at its core … the idea that you pay teachers more for getting results with their kids.”

Opposition to the plan, known as the Professional Compensation System for Teachers, or ProComp, came mainly from a small group of teachers. They charged that the complex system was unfair to teachers who would have fewer opportunities to earn more money because of their assignments, and it would encourage teachers to teach to tests. Opponents also argued that the district’s administration had not shown itself capable of running such a system.

In recent years, the idea of overhauling the way teachers are paid to bring it in line with compensation systems in other sectors has gained broad support among reformers and lawmakers. But winning teachers over and surmounting a host of practical problems have proved difficult. The two national teachers’ unions have been against so-called “merit” or “performance” pay for individual educators, especially when it would link the test scores of a class to a teacher’s salary. As a result, changes in salary structures have mostly been timid and piecemeal.

To date, no school district as large as Denver, which enrolls about 70,000 students, has thoroughly revamped its compensation plan to reflect factors other than years of experience and college credits. Denver’s framework is also unusual for giving teachers substantial opportunities to add salary based directly on student-achievement results.

'A Breakthrough'

Proponents of paying teachers on a different basis hailed the victory as significant. And some said it promises more such changes nationwide.

“By approving ProComp, a solid majority of Denver voters have ushered in a new chapter in the history of the teacher profession,” Josh Greenman, a spokesman for the bipartisan advocacy group, the Teaching Commission, said in a statement. “It’s a breakthrough that can, should, and will spread across the country.”

One feature of the Denver framework that made it unthreatening to teachers now in the school system is a voluntary opt-in over six years. Only teachers new to the system will be forced to enroll. Members of the 3,200-member Denver Classroom Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, backed the proposal by 59 percent to 41 percent in a March 2004 vote.

The Denver plan aims to raise teachers’ salaries as much as 40 percent over a 25-year career but on condition that their work will contribute directly to academic gains for students. One facet of the plan, already in effect, requires teachers to set measurable objectives for their classrooms and rewards them with salary increases or bonuses if they meet those objectives. Other incentives dole out salary increases or bonuses for completing degrees, undertaking professional-development projects, raising scores on state tests, or teaching in high-poverty schools or in academic areas such as English as a second language where there are shortages of qualified teachers.

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