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Teaching Profession

Fate of Denver’s Pay Plan Rests With Voters

By Bess Keller — October 25, 2005 6 min read
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Denver voters go to the polls next week to decide the fate of a new pay plan for teachers, with only a small band of opponents challenging the property-tax hike that would finance the change.

The pay framework, which would stop rewarding teachers for their years in the classroom and start recognizing a host of skills and achievements on the job, has been closely watched nationwide because it would mean a radical shift in the way teachers are usually paid and would affect a sizable district of 70,000 students.

The initiative was endorsed by a vote of the members of the main Denver teachers’ union in March of last year, advancing funding for the framework to this year’s ballot as Question 3A. Voters will be asked Nov. 1 to pass a property-tax increase that would amount to $24 per year on every $100,000 of a home’s value, coming to $56 annually, say, for a house assessed at $260,000.

If the plan wins financing, new teachers will automatically be enrolled in it, but teachers currently employed by the district will have some six years to decide whether to opt in.

Joining the plan could mean as much as 40 percent more in pay over a 25-year career. On the other hand, a teacher might actually earn less some years under the framework. Appreciable earnings would be determined by a teacher’s initiative and the fairness of the pay system, in fact.

Widespread Support

With strong support from popular Mayor John W. Hickenlooper, the City Council, and prominent business and charitable interests—as well as a long history among Denver’s teachers, who have been involved in shaping and piloting the plan for more than six years—proponents of the change are optimistic about the outcome of the vote. Just one statement was filed with the Denver elections board against the proposal, and anti-tax groups have been focusing their attention on two statewide referenda.

Backers say, too, they have little to fear from the small group of teachers who organized just three weeks ago for the purpose of persuading voters to say no to the joint union-district plan, known as ProComp for “professional compensation.”

BRIC ARCHIVE

But those foes of the measure liken themselves to the Little Engine That Could, convinced that most teachers in the district are against the plan and that voters will be swayed once they hear that.

“We just have to let the public know the opposition exists and why we are opposed,” said Janice vonDrehle-Turner, a teacher at Holm Elementary School who has 10 years of experience in the Denver district and serves on the union’s contract-bargaining team.

$1,000 to $1 Million

Ms. vonDrehle-Turner argues that the complicated plan—some elements of which have not been fully worked out—would set teachers up to teach to tests, give too much power to principals, and get fouled up by a district administration that routinely trips over its own red tape. Moreover, she says, it seeks to fix a system that hasn’t broken.

“All kinds of unions [and] districts have reviewed [performance pay] and chosen not to attempt it, and there’s a reason for that,” Ms. vonDrehle-Turner said, adding that the teachers had expected the Denver Classroom Teachers Association’s national and state counterparts to wage a campaign against the proposal but none has been forthcoming.

Her group, Teachers Opposing ProComp, has raised about $1,000 for its effort, which includes putting up lawn signs and leafleting, Ms. vonDrehle-Turner said. In contrast, the Voters for Denver Public Schools campaign has raised about $1.1 million. Among other expenditures, the campaign has plowed that money into television advertisements featuring the mayor.

Ms. vonDrehle-Turner noted that while 59 percent of the teachers who voted in the pay-plan referendum last year favored it, that amounted to fewer than half the district’s roughly 4,000 teachers, some of whom didn’t vote and some of whom do not belong to the DCTA, a National Education Association affiliate.

The point has traction because public-opinion polling shows that voters want teachers to vouch for ProComp.

“People think it’s a good idea, they are satisfied with it as something that rewards teachers who do well, and they think that teachers are the best spokespeople for ProComp,” said Brad Jupp, a former union activist who led the development of the plan and now works for the district.

“Most people at least want the option,” Kim Ursetta, the president of the Denver union, said of her members. “It’s based on successful and unsuccessful models elsewhere, and that’s why we think ours is a more comprehensive and better plan.”

Numerous Options

Proponents of the framework contend that by paying teachers for their accomplishments and giving them “market incentives” to teach in situations where it is harder to draw high-quality educators, the district will come closer to the workforce it needs to boost student achievement. Also, they say, many teachers would earn more under the plan, which would add an inflation-adjusted $25 million annually to the district’s teacher-pay account.

The plan would give teachers nine separate ways to earn money on top of a base salary that would still be adjusted by any cost-of-living increases won at the bargaining table.

All teachers would be eligible for salary gains for professional-development projects, graduate degrees or advanced certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and satisfactory evaluations from principals. Meeting student-achievement objectives would earn teachers more money, as would working in a school that won recognition from the state for student achievement. Teachers whose students take state tests would be eligible for salary gains if they were to score high enough. To keep the increases, the gains would have to be sustained.

In addition, teachers working in high-poverty schools or taking jobs in the district’s shortage fields, which currently include English-language learning for Spanish-speakers and middle school math, would earn about $1,000 more for each of the two circumstances. The other gains are calculated as mostly small percentages of the district’s starting salary, which this year is $33,301.

‘A Business Model’

Teachers have been particularly concerned about the evaluation component of the system, which would put one part of their raises in the hands of principals. That component is still being tweaked.

Kristin E. Waters, the principal of Bruce Randolph Middle School, said that while the evaluation system has been improved, it is still too cumbersome. But she said she remains a strong supporter of the new pay plan. “It recognizes teachers who work hard and make a difference,” she said.

Her low-performing school is in its first year under a reorganization plan, and Ms. Waters asked for and got permission to put all the components of ProComp into effect this year—a year before most would kick in if voters approve the plan. She said she hopes it will be some compensation for all the hours of professional development the teachers committed to when she hired them.

“I wanted to come for the challenge,” said Valerie Kershaw, a 27-year-old teacher on Ms. Waters’ faculty. She said she considers the extra money she expects to earn under the new plan “a nice bonus” for her work and for switching to Bruce Randolph Middle School.

Her friends are “a little skeptical” of the proposed change, she said, because they aren’t sure of the rationale behind it. “But once I say it’s something like a business model,” Ms. Kershaw said, “then they light up and understand. … They all said, ‘What a great idea.’ ”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as Fate of Denver’s Pay Plan Rests With Voters

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