President Bush’s top education lieutenants have given more attention lately to what would be a major boost to federal aid for improving teacher quality. But some call the proposed $500 million program to change the way teachers are paid a tough sell in Congress, and even tougher because administration officials waited until spring to raise its profile.
The Teacher Incentive Fund envisioned by the administration would give the states $450 million in the coming fiscal year to reward effective teachers, especially those who work in high-poverty schools. Under the program, an additional $50 million would be earmarked for helping states, districts, and nonprofit groups design performance-pay systems that could serve as models.
“If we expect results for every child, we must support teachers who are getting the job done in America’s toughest classrooms,” Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings declared in a speech last month. Both she and Raymond J. Simon, the Department of Education’s acting deputy secretary, have mentioned the fund in speeches or congressional testimony over the past two months.
But some who like the idea criticize the administration for failing to champion it earlier.
“They’ve waited too long to make this a priority,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, the director of education policy at the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington think tank affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council. He noted that Mr. Bush in his State of the Union Address in January did not spotlight teacher quality.
Mr. Rotherham said a push to increase the number of skilled teachers in the neediest schools perfectly complements the achievement standards set under the No Child Left Behind Act.
The current budget includes almost $3 billion that could be spent on the goals set forth for the fund, but most of it is now used for programs that predate the accountability system of the Bush administration’s signature education law.
Money Is Tight
“If you really want to leverage change, you have to put new money on the table,” Mr. Rotherham argued. “Most of the money [currently in the budget] is flowing through existing funding streams,” such as for smaller classes.
But other observers, notably the nation’s largest teachers’ union, favor augmenting those streams. “Why do we need another program?” said Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the 2.7 million-member National Education Association.
“It’s an interesting kind of irony,” Mr. Packer added. “As opposed to simply putting more money in programs [the Bush administration and its supporters] created, they want to put money in this more narrow one.”
The NEA endorses the concept of more money for the most difficult teaching assignments, but it generally opposes linking pay to student achievement.
Whatever legislators think about the wisdom of setting up the new fund, finding money for it is expected to be tough. The president has proposed a nearly 1 percent cut to the Education Department’s discretionary spending, and the fiscal 2006 budget blueprint passed by Congress last month suggests that lawmakers are not inclined to increase Mr. Bush’s bottom-line number for purposes other than the most politically popular programs, such as vocational education and college scholarships. (“Budget Resolution Removes Extra Education Money,” May 4, 2005.)
A Republican staff member for the House subcommittee that oversees education spending, headed by Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, said Mr. Regula might be more interested in pilot programs that alter the way teachers are paid, rather than in a huge new pot of money.
“If there is sufficient evidence that this is something we should support a little bit more,” the aide said, “then we could look into a new authorization.”