Teaching Profession

Iowa’s Move Toward Pay-for-Performance On Verge of Collapse

By Karla Scoon Reid — September 10, 2003 4 min read
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Iowa legislators appear ready to scrap much of their state’s teacher pay-for- performance program, which just two years ago was considered a bold shift away from rewarding educators based on seniority.

A victim of the state’s declining revenue almost as soon as the plan became law in 2001, funding for performance-based compensation was never allocated. With few anticipating that Iowa’s financial picture will brighten, leading lawmakers say it’s time to face the music when the legislature meets again in January.

“Why delay it another year?” Rep. Danny Carroll, a Republican, said last week. “Why pretend when we don’t have a realistic way to pay for it?”

Lawmakers and state officials believe that some pieces of the plan already in place will be salvaged, including a pay increase for beginning teachers and a two-year mentoring program for those new to the profession. The state allocated $44 million to pay for those efforts this fiscal year—far short of the $300 million that the program was expected to cost if fully implemented.

The goals of the “teacher-quality” initiative were sweeping. They included raising the retention rates for beginning teachers, attracting more people to the profession, making salaries more competitive, and enhancing teacher professional development.

Today, though, the plan’s unfulfilled promise and the state’s other cuts to education in recent years have disheartened Iowa teachers, who had criticized the program for lack of stable funding.

New Demands

This past spring, faced with a $200 million projected revenue shortfall in a total budget of $4.6 billion for fiscal year 2004, the legislature cut $20 million from the state’s Area Education Agencies, the primary provider of professional development, and eliminated a $10 million fund for teacher training.

Although per-pupil funding did increase, some believe those specific budget cuts nonetheless undermine the teacher-pay plan’s goals. Professional- development dollars were essential to making the plan work, said John Hieronymus, the president of the 32,000-member Iowa State Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. The state’s professional-teaching standards were linked to training and pay increases, he noted. And, he said, although beginning teachers’ pay climbed to $24,500 from $23,000, veteran teachers have largely been ignored.

“They haven’t tried to sabotage the [teacher-compensation] plan,” Mr. Hieronymus said, referring to lawmakers. “But they haven’t done anything to make it work.”

Jan Olson, a part-time high school guidance counselor who also coordinates the 14,000- student Sioux City district’s mentoring program for beginning teachers, had high hopes for the teacher-quality initiative. She became disenchanted as the state stripped away professional-development money just as new federal mandates were demanding more of teachers.

“I’m afraid that we’ve stretched and stretched to the point that we can’t stretch anymore,” she said.

‘The Right Ideas’

Pay-for-performance models have been piloted in schools and some districts, such as Cincinnati and Denver, but Iowa was the first state to adopt such a comprehensive law. Most states are taking “baby steps” toward paying teachers based on student performance, said Michael Allen, the program director for the Teaching Quality Policy Center for the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

“Someone has to be able to take a really big step in terms of pay for performance,” he argued, adding that Iowa’s plan has been the most progressive state effort.

The plan sought new comprehensive evaluations of teachers every three years. Teachers also would earn bonuses if the school’s student learning goals are met. (“Iowa Approves Performance Pay for Its Teachers,” May 16, 2001.)

Costly compensation plans aren’t likely to get funding as states face fiscal uncertainty.

The only real hope of saving the compensation plan is to make the initiative a top priority, argued Rep. Phil Wise, the ranking Democrat on the education committee of the Iowa House. Mr. Wise, a retired teacher, hopes that some funding can be allocated to ramp up the project.

“We’ve made little progress in the last year or two,” he said. “We have to decide whether it’s a priority and fund it, or admit we failed and dismantle it.”

Ted Stilwill, the director of the Iowa Department of Education, acknowledged that competition for increasing appropriations would be stiff. The latest budget projections show that Iowa will fall $100 million short of its revenue projections in the upcoming fiscal year.

Opportunities to enact “good faith” efforts that could push the initiative forward exist, Mr. Stilwill said. Increasing teacher contract days to include professional development time is an option. One additional training day would cost about $10 million, however.

Don’t count Iowa out of the pay-for-performance business just yet. Mr. Stilwill says bipartisan support for the concept exists. And some school districts are toying with crafting their own compensation plans.

“These are the right ideas,” Mr. Stilwill argued. “They may come back at a different time in a different form.”

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