Friday, March 11, 2011

2nd of 3 reforms clears Legislature

Funding, effectiveness main concerns


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

A bill providing merit pay for teachers was passed by the Legislature on Wednesday, despite concerns over funding and over the effectiveness of pay-for-performance systems in increasing student achievement. It was the second of three major education reform bills passed by the Legislature this year.

"We're betting the farm on something that is untried and unproven," Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise said during debate on the bill. "It's a shot in the dark."

The bill, Senate Bill 1110, flew through the House, 44 in favor to 26 against. The vote followed almost three hours of debate.

By far the most-discussed concern was funding. The plan will cost the state $38 million in 2013, a price tag that skyrockets to $51.3 million in 2014 and every year thereafter.

"The big question is, where is the money coming from?" said Tryntje Van Slyke, president of the Blaine County Education Association, in an interview. "I don't really have an idea how they're going to pull this off."

The costs were originally meant to be offset by the savings in Luna's third education reform bill. The third bill was set to save the state $52.5 million in 2013, mostly in cuts to teaching positions and by having students take more classes online.

However, these savings are far from certain. That part of the plan is stalled in the Senate Education Committee, though Luna has said that it may resurface early next week.

"Financing does seem to be a huge hangup," said Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding.

Pence said other, similar programs have been attempted before, but always fell through.

"The biggest thing that has doomed any of these programs is failure to provide enough money for it," she said.

Other legislators expressed similar concerns. One is Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, who has been an outspoken opponent of the reforms.

"Frankly, the history of promises that have been made to teachers for rewarding good work is not very good," he said during Wednesday's hearing. "I feel we're making another unfulfilled promise—a cruel joke."

Cronin said similar programs, such as a pay ladder that would increase teacher compensation and a mentoring program that would reward longtime teachers for working with less experienced ones, have been developed and discarded.

"To say to teachers that we want to reward them but then not show them how we're going to do it just seems cruel," he said.

Supporters of the bill argued that as it would not be effective until 2013, the Legislature has plenty of time to pass a money-saving education reform or to appropriate the funds from elsewhere in the general fund.

"I can't think of any other agency in the state that has as much money going into it," said Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa. "It's not a matter of finding more money. This boils down to focusing on the money we have."

Still, Cronin argued, there's no guarantee the money can be found in the general fund next year, especially considering the current situation.

"We have a Swiss cheese budget right now, so many holes we can't fill," he said.

About $9.4 million in savings was approved as part of the first education bill passed Tuesday, but that's not enough to pay for the more recent bill. Bill sponsor Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene, said the merit pay system would be funded automatically from the education budget.

"It's anything but an unfunded mandate," he said.

Nonini said the bill is vital because the current system makes it difficult to reward outstanding teachers.

"Any effort by teachers to go above and beyond and go the extra mile is rewarded by the same pay as every other teacher," Nonini said.

Van Slyke said that's true, to an extent.

"Still, I don't think this pay for performance will do that either," she said. "You're going to have a lot of people competing against each other instead of collaborating. I don't see how that's good for students."

The proposed system would provide three ways for teachers to gain merit bonuses: for holding hard-to-fill positions, for taking on "leadership roles" in their respective schools and through demonstrated student growth on a school-wide basis.

Van Slyke said she didn't know how many Blaine County teachers would be eligible for bonuses, as it wasn't clear what standards would be set for measuring student growth. At the end of the day, she said, she thought the bill wasn't needed.

"Our students are doing well without it," she said. "In a lot of areas, we [Blaine County] are No. 1 in the state. That's hard to improve on."

As of press time, both education reform bills passed this week were on their way to the desk of Gov. Butch Otter, whose signature would make them law.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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