Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Many Texas school districts reject merit pay for teachers

Monday, March 10, 2008

By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN ˆ More than 100 school districts have changed
their minds and dropped out of Texas' new merit pay
plan for teachers ˆ leaving just a third of the
districts in the state to help launch the $148 million
program next year.

The decision by so many districts to bail out of the
plan ˆ mostly because of financial concerns ˆ means
there will be more money for the districts that are
staying in.

For example, the Dallas school district will get
almost $1 million extra for a total of nearly $8.2

Districts decide how to distribute the money, but the
recommended minimum bonus is $3,000.

In all, nine districts in Dallas County will
participate in the District Awards for Teacher
Excellence, approved by the Legislature to financially
reward the state's best teachers.

Other large districts in the Dallas area that have
signed up for the program are Arlington, Fort Worth
and Plano.

One district that first decided to participate and
then pulled out recently was Grapevine-Colleyville,
which will forgo a $650,000 grant from the state.

Karen Moxley, an English teacher at Cross Timbers
Middle School and the president of the
Grapevine-Colleyville Education Association, said the
district was concerned about language in program rules
that suggested school officials should be prepared to
pay the bonuses with local funds in the future.

"When they looked at what it would take to be eligible
for the program and the fact that state funds could
not be guaranteed in future years, they had second
thoughts," Ms. Moxley said of her district's decision
to not participate. "It just wasn't a good fit for our

Megan Overman, a spokeswoman for the district, said
officials "spent a lot of time researching the program
and the impact it could potentially have on our

In the end, she noted, it came down to two questions:
"Whether this program would support the culture of our
district, and what are the financial issues related to
the matching funds requirement and the uncertainty of
continued funding from the state."

Since there were concerns about both, the district
opted out.

Since last fall, superintendents have complained about
a decision by state Education Commissioner Robert
Scott to require that districts put up a 15 percent
match to receive a state grant under the DATE program.

In Dallas' case, that means about $1.1 million in
local funds or in-kind contributions.

Mr. Scott has said the match is a relatively small
amount of the total and gives school districts an
investment in the program.

But many local school officials said their budgets are
too tightly drawn to be able to give up the dollars.

They also note the possibility that state funds may
diminish or disappear if state revenues drop sharply
as they did five years ago when the Legislature
enacted broad cutbacks in state programs to erase a
$10 billion deficit.

"There is a lot of concern about future funding
increases that school districts may not get," said
Cindy Clegg of the Texas Association of School Boards,
referring to the state guidelines cautioning that
districts may eventually have to fund the incentive
payments on their own.

"It takes a lot of time and effort to put a plan like
this together," she said. "Until there is a clear
commitment and some funding stability, you are going
to see districts approach this tentatively."

Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas
Education Agency, said funding is contingent on future
appropriations from the Legislature, and school
districts should approach the merit pay plan with that
in mind.

"We wish we could predict long-term funding for our
programs, but when the Legislature operates on a
two-year budget, we cannot guarantee anything longer
than that," she explained.

Ms. Ratcliffe said the program is voluntary and
districts have the right to not participate.

Still, she added, "This is something that can put
thousands of extra dollars in their teachers'
paychecks. That is one of many reasons they should
consider participating."

She also pointed out that some districts are already
operating their own merit pay plans and said they may
prefer to keep their money in those rather than join
the state's program.

The DATE program and a companion merit pay plan aimed
at rewarding teachers in schools with a high
percentage of low-income children make up the largest
teacher merit pay program in the state.

The twin plans were part of the school reform package
adopted by the Legislature in a special session on
education in the spring of 2006.

Among the 336 districts that will be offering DATE
bonuses next year are the 10 largest districts in the
state ˆ including Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Austin
and Arlington.

Those districts all will receive sizable grants under
the program and would have found it difficult to turn
down such a sum.

"It's hard for the bigger districts to turn down
millions of dollars no matter how they feel about the
program," said Richard Kouri of the Texas State
Teachers Association, which has been critical of both
merit pay plans.

Mr. Kouri said he was not surprised that two-thirds of
the districts in the state have decided not to get
into the DATE program.

"When they looked at the requirements and anticipated
costs, many decided it wasn't how they wanted to spend
their money and their time," he said. "Some districts
decided not to do it because it hinges on a single
standardized test, and many educators are beginning to
question whether high-stakes tests should be the
end-all and be-all of education in this state."

Ms. Moxley said teachers in the Grapevine-Colleyville
district were unenthusiastic about introducing merit
pay there.

"Nobody wanted to turn the money down, but we felt
this would have pitted teacher against teacher," she

After Dallas, the next largest grant in Dallas County
is scheduled to go to Garland at $2.9 million, up
$300,000 from last fall's estimate.

Arlington is in line to receive almost $3.2 million
and Plano nearly $2.8 million.

Legislative leaders, meanwhile, said they remain
committed to the program and believe it will yield
results in the classroom as districts come up with
locally designed merit pay plans that reward the best
teachers for their efforts.

"We're trying to find the best and fairest ways to
reward teacher performance," said Rob Eissler, R-The
Woodlands, who is chairman of the House Public
Education Committee Chairman.

A look at the two plans that make up Texas' teacher
merit pay program, the largest in the nation:

DATE: District Awards for Teacher Excellence program
begins next year and is open to all schools. The
grants require a local match.

Recommends a $3,000 bonus per teacher and is designed
to provide enough money to reward nearly 50,000
teachers, one of every six in Texas, for improved test
scores and other signs of student achievement.

TEEG: Texas Educator Excellence Grant program, it is
in its second year and is for teachers in schools with
a high percentage of low-income children. No local
match is required.

Involved an estimated 52,000 teachers at 1,148
campuses last year and gave average maximum bonuses of
$2,263, far less than the $3,000 to $10,000 range
recommended by the Legislature.
Dallas-area school districts participating in Texas'
new merit pay plan for teachers and the amount of
grant money each will receive from the state. (Each
district must provide a 15 percent local match.)
School District Estimated award
Allen $864,933
Arlington $3,175,638
Aubrey $77,983
Birdville $1,145,265

Farmers Branch
Cedar Hill $406,564
Dallas $8,149,159
Duncanville $633,027
Fort Worth $4,071,869
Garland $2,921,694

Irving $1,647,914
Keller $1,413,828
Lancaster $319,515
McKinney $1,099,080
Mesquite $1,869,680
Plano $2,756,152
Prosper $116,726
Richardson $1,736,372
Districts not participating: Carroll, Coppell, Denton,
DeSoto, Ennis, Frisco Grand Prairie,
Grapevine-Colleyville, Highland Park, Lewisville,
Rockwall, Sunnyvale
SOURCE: Texas Education Agency


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