Recruitment & Retention

Smaller-Than-Expected Bonuses Anger Some L.A. Teachers

By Jeff Archer — November 07, 2001 4 min read
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Patricia Pfau had big plans for the $10,000 bonus she expected to receive, courtesy of California’s new system for rewarding schools: a family vacation, educational software for her students, and a toy kitchen set for her classroom.

But last week, the special education teacher learned that her bonus would be far less than half what she had thought it would be. Although the state awarded her school $10,000 for each eligible staff member, the Los Angeles Unified School District is divvying up the money to employees based on a percentage of their salaries.

With less than three years of service in the 730,000-student district, the teacher at Atwater Avenue Elementary School is low enough on the salary scale that she estimates her take will be between $2,000 and $3,000.

Now, she says, “I’m planning on paying some bills.”

Why the confusion? The state law that established the bonus program says the size of the awards must be tied to base pay, unless districts negotiate with their local unions to come up with their own systems for distributing the money. The vast majority of California districts with winning schools took that option.

But because United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers’ union in Ms. Pfau’s district, opposes pay plans tied to student test scores, it would not bargain on the issue. District leaders had no choice but to fall back on the state formula.

All that, however, was news to many of the educators who work in the 20 Los Angeles schools due to receive the awards. As they’ve come to understand how the money is being distributed, and why, some are venting frustration at both state policymakers and their own union.

Feeling left out of the loop, they say a program that was promoted as a way to reward teamwork is now fueling divisiveness by rewarding teachers based on seniority.

“This brings dissension in the ranks,” Ms. Pfau said. “Personally, I think everyone worked just as hard as everyone else that year” that the school’s scores improved.

Unforeseen Effects

The $100 million-a-year program is one of a series of financial incentives included as part of California’s new education accountability plan. Bonus money is awarded to schools based on how much they exceed state-set goals for student performance on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition.

This first round of bonuses is for improvement made between 1999 and 2000. (“Calif. Test-Based Bonus Plan Gets Off to Rocky Start,” Jan. 24, 2001.) State policymakers created three tiers for the awards. Schools posting the greatest gains are to get $25,000 for every full-time staff member with certification, such as teachers, administrators, and nurses. Those on the middle rung get $10,000, and the lowest award is $5,000 per certified employee.

Many educators at the Los Angeles schools now in line for the rewards say they assumed that those would be the amounts of the bonuses paid to individuals. It was only late last month that they learned otherwise, as central-office officials explained the distribution formula to the 20 principals, who then told their own staffs.

“We didn’t know it was happening this way until we walked into the meeting” with the district officials, said Loretta DeLange, the principal at Annandale Elementary School. “And then you could have pushed us over with a feather.”

Like most of her teachers, Ms. DeLange believed giving everyone at the school the same amount would be more fair. Other principals pointed out that the formula puts them in the awkward position of being among the top bonus winners, since their salaries are among the highest.

Another quirk—caused by the fact that buildings vary in the total experience of their staffs—means that teachers in different awarding-winning schools are getting different amounts, even if they have the same level of seniority.

Some Los Angeles teachers and administrators have been asking whether the formula can still be altered. The district has yet to actually cut the checks, and until it does, it’s possible to negotiate a different distribution system, state education officials said.

Against Union Policy

But that isn’t likely to happen. For one thing, the leaders of the union representing the district’s principals—which also must agree to any new policy on the issue—opted to go with the state formula, and see no reason to change their minds, said Eli Brent, the president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles.

And UTLA President Day Higuchi said he can’t bargain on the issue so long as the standing policy of his union, which is affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, is in opposition to financial incentives linked to test scores.

The local union’s main policymaking body technically could revisit the issue when it convenes for its regular meeting this week. But Mr. Higuchi said he doesn’t favor a change, because any pay system related to student performance would be flawed.

“There is no way to devise a scheme that doesn’t leave some feeling that they were treated unfairly,” he said, “because the law is such a blunt instrument.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Smaller-Than-Expected Bonuses Anger Some L.A. Teachers


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