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Ed. Dept. Unveils $1 Billion Plan to Improve Teacher Pay, Working Conditions

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 12, 2016 3 min read
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This item originally appeared on the Teacher Beat blog.

Could $1 billion make teaching the best job in the world? Well, the U.S. Department of Education is banking that it can at least help make a dent in the perception of teaching as underfunded and not prestigious, anyway: It’s pitching a $1 billion program toward that end as part of its fiscal year 2017 budget request.

Under its proposal, districts would use the funds to improve teacher salaries, working conditions, and professional development. Overall, the initiative also aims to help improve the distribution of teacher talent, something the agency has struggled to get states to do.

“I think if we want to ensure that teaching, particularly in our highest-need schools is attractive, we’ve got to make sure the compensation reflects the complexity of the work. That’s why this initiative includes the opportunity for districts to increase salaries for effective teachers in high-needs schools,” Acting Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., said in a press call with reporters Friday. “We have a lot of work to do as a country so that regardless of the ZIP code you’re in, you have access to an excellent education, and teacher salaries are a part of that. And so too are working conditions,” he said, noting the deplorable state of many Detroit school buildings.

The federal program, called RESPECT: The Best Job In the World, would give out competitive grants of $50 million to $250 million to states, which would then offer subgrants to school districts. With the cash, districts would aim to implement the following activities:

Create teacher-advancement opportunities.

This would include increasing salaries for effective teachers, allowing them to move up the salary scale at an accelerated pace, or move into hybrid teacher leadership roles. (Wondering what the ideal model would look like? There’s a lot more detail in the Education Department’s budget justifications, in which it discusses the District of Columbia’s teacher-bonus and leadership systems.)

Increase flexibility for teacher professional development.

Provide teachers with common planning time, establish teams to analyze and review student work, and have teachers lead professional development for their peers.

Improve teachers’ working conditions and school climate.

This could include adding more time for school counseling, wraparound services for students, reducing class sizes, or establishing teacher-leadership opportunities in which teachers can retain one foot in the classroom.

The Education Department envisions giving out between five and 10 grants of somewhere between $50 million and $250 million each.

Does this all sound a little familiar? Well, as it happens, the department proposed a $1 billion teaching program last year, too (and a $5 billion one several years before that), none of which got any traction in Congress. The new program’s emphasis does seem somewhat different, perhaps because ED officials said that it builds on educator feedback from its Teach to Lead project.

About that price tag. Even though this is envisioned as a one-time, mandatory-spending program, funding prospects for the program probably aren’t any better than in the past, given Congress’ tepid reaction to the overall budget request.

Queried about this, King said he was nevertheless optimistic that the program had a shot, given the “very effective, bipartisan cooperation” that led to the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act late last year.

Photo: Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King, center standing, speaks during a roundtable discussion with lawmakers and local leaders in January in El Paso, Texas.—Victor Calzada /The El Paso Times via AP-File

For more on the Education Department’s teacher-leader initiatives: