POSTED ON AUGUST 22, 2007:
More Better Learnin'?
Lawmakers begin study on a merit-pay system for public school teachers
Hot Button. House speaker Lance Cargill and others announced last week that hearings will be held to examine merit pay and develop a plan for performance-based pay for public school teachers.
It looks like a merit pay system for teachers will be one of the hot button issues over which lawmakers will do battle at the state Capitol next year, if a slew of interim study hearings recently announced by House leadership are any indication.
House Speaker Lance Cargill and others announced last week that a series of five hearings will be held over the next few months to examine the issue and to develop a plan for performance-based pay for public school teachers.
"We need bold reforms to start rewarding teachers for success in the classroom so that our best and hardest-working teachers are paid for their achievements," said Cargill, R-Harrah.
"We fund our schools with tax dollars, and taxpayers demand accountability. More money alone won't solve our problems in education. Only investment coupled with higher standards, rising expectations and meaningful results can create the education system all Oklahomans deserve. By rewarding teachers based on their performance, we're raising the bar for education all across the state," the Speaker continued.
Rep. Tad Jones, R-Claremore, who heads the House Education Committee, characterized the current system as "one-size-fits-all" and said, "To compete in today's world, we must look at tying results to salary levels."
"Teachers are professionals, and they should be paid like professionals," said Republican Rep. Earl Sears.
Sears was the principal of Central Middle School in his home city of Bartlesville for 24 years.
"Quality teachers are among the most important factors that determine student success. We should be providing incentives and rewards for our best and brightest," he added.
Of course, whatever plan House Republicans devise for a performance-based pay system won't become law without overcoming a considerable amount of inevitable resistance.
Whatever opposition they'll meet in the Legislature will come primarily from the leader of the Senate Democrats, President Pro Tempore Mike Morgan.
"Merit-based teacher pay is one way to ensure accountability in the classroom and we are certainly intrigued by the idea. But we want to ensure fairness and objectivity in any merit-based pay raise plan that is put forth," said the circumspect Democrat from Stillwater.
While Morgan might be "intrigued" at the moment, he likely hasn't yet met the full force of pressure from teachers associations and other politically formidable lobbyist groups, such as the Oklahoma Education Association.
OEA President Roy Bishop, for one, doesn't find himself particularly intrigued by the notion of a merit-based pay system.
"To think the teachers aren't already working hard and to dangle a few hundred dollars in our noses, thinking that's going to motivate us to work harder than we already are is laughable," he told UTW.
"We won't even discuss merit pay until lawmakers fulfill their commitment to get us to the regional average," Bishop added.
He said one year remains in a five-year plan to gradually raise Oklahoma teachers' average salary up to the regional average.
When Cargill announced the upcoming hearings, though, he said, "Oklahoma's teachers have seen record pay increases over the past three years and we've lived up to the promise to increase their pay."
He also pointed to the $4,800 teacher pay raised approved this year as an initial step toward a merit-based pay system in that it was weighted toward veteran teachers and those with advanced degrees.
"We took a step toward a performance-based system this year. Now it's time to take the next step by reforming the system to reward success," Cargill added.
Bishop called the Speaker's comments "another smokescreen to get us away from what's truly important, and that's a livable wage for teachers."
At an approximate average of "a little over $42,000 a year," the OEA prez said Oklahoma teachers make about a thousand dollars less than the regional average for teachers' salaries.
However, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, at $32,210 for 2006, Oklahoma's overall per capita income is lower than the regional average of a little less than $33,000, which means the average salary for most other professions is lower in Oklahoma compared to the regional average, not just teachers.
When asked how such circumstances weigh on the need to raise teachers' pay to at least the regional average, Bishop said, "I don't know, but I'm representing Oklahoma teachers and, in order for Oklahoma to be successful--if they want our graduates to stay in the state, we have to attract the best teachers."
And across-the-board pay raises, rather than merit-based pay raises, is the right way to do that, he said.
Bishop argued that a performance-based pay system would likely be based on students' test scores, and would therefore be unfair and unavailable for every teacher to have equal opportunities for pay increases.
For instance, he said, his wife teaches students with emotional and learning disabilities, and test scores wouldn't be an indication of her performance with them.
Also, to create a fair method of assessing teachers' performances, "We'd have to totally change our test structure, which would cost millions," said Bishop.
Further, he said any merit-based system that is "truly fair and open to all" would "collapse under its own weight."
Under a fair system, Bishop explained, far more people would qualify for it than (Cargill and company) ever imagined," and the Legislature would find itself unable to provide the promised rewards, which would result in "lowering the average teacher's salary in the state even more."
The first hearing was scheduled for Tuesday (Aug. 21) of this week and included testimony from Dr. Gary Ritter, who holds an endowed chair in education policy at the University of Arkansas.
The next hearing is scheduled for Sept. 11 and is to include testimony from teacher organizations, superintendents, principals and school boards.
The final hearing is scheduled for Oct. 9.
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