ABCs of Teacher Pay 

Luna's big plan to mix politics and education

Idaho may rank 38th in the nation in average teacher pay, but there is one thing the state is way out front on: It's likely the first to propose bonuses for teachers who give up their renewable contract rights.

As lawmakers gather in Boise this week with their briefcases full of pet projects, fiscal responsibility and social engineering, the largest task they will face is approving the K-12 schools budget. And Idaho State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna has a little treat waiting for them. He wants $60 million to increase teacher salaries and maybe pull Idaho out of the bottom tier of states in which to be a teacher.

"It's a very substantial step and pretty courageous step on the part of Mr. Luna," said Boise schools superintendent Stan Olson. "He's talking about $60 million."

Even the Idaho Education Association is pleased with the numbers: "$60 million into the system would be great," said Gayle Moore, the union's communication director.

There will be plenty of reasonable and well-researched debate over how to assess teacher performance, whether by using tests or portfolios or evaluations. There may be a good debate as to what kinds of extra degrees deserve extra pay and what constitutes a hard-to-fill position. And the governor and House conservatives have already begun whittling down the $60 million figure with doubt-filled statements about Luna's plan.

But the debate over what Luna is calling the "career opportunity" step, promises to be purely political.

At an education forum last week in Boise, Luna acknowledged that part of the iSTARS plan is politically motivated: "Whatever plan we put together has to be able to make it through the Legislature and the governor," he said.

The political part, the part for which Luna offers no economic or pedagogical justification, is the creation of a new category of teacher contracts.

To access the bulk of the proposed bonus pay, teachers must give up their continuing contracts, a concept similar to tenure at universities. The renewable contracts that kick in after three years of teaching in a district protect teachers in Idaho and across the nation from the whims of politicians, angry parents and bad office politics.

Trading tenure for added pay is a new tack in the national movement to boost teacher pay.

"It's a significant departure, and it seems an odd marriage that the quid pro quo would be tenure at a time when we as a nation are facing teacher shortages," said Jim Carlson, founder of the Educator Compensation Institute, a Wisconsin-based clearinghouse of information on teacher pay plans.

IEA President Sherri Wood said that teachers need the protections of continuing contracts in Idaho in order to do their jobs.

"It's a part of academic freedom, that we teach about things that some parents might be opposed to but that children need to know," she said.

Wood is talking about coursework that is in the curriculum and in state academic standards, of course. While Wood is willing to discuss how teachers get fired in Idaho, she does not think it belongs in a debate over teacher pay.

The idea of paying teachers based on their performance goes back at least two decades. Moore recalled that in the 1980s the Legislature considered a "career ladder" plan, developed by the teacher's union. It was never funded.

Now, due in part to No Child Left Behind and nationwide teacher shortages, teacher performance pay is all the rage again. In 2004, the State Board of Education started to look at ways to reward teachers for raising student achievement. It considered using test scores, a Web site that, for a small fee, promised to take demographic and academic factors into account or other academic measures to award the bonus pay.

Teacher pay plans are even eliciting statements from presidential candidates. John Edwards wants $5,000 for teachers in high-performing, high-poverty schools, and Barack Obama wants merit pay for teacher mentors and for high-need subject areas.

Performance, merit and hard-to-fill position bonuses all appear in Luna's plan.

But none of these ideas have gained any traction in the Idaho Legislature, where a more apt analysis is this one by GOP candidate Mike Huckabee: "Teachers' unions don't just protect poor teachers by making it virtually impossible for them to get dismissed, they discourage potentially good teachers from even entering the profession. No one with a spark of ambition wants a career path where they can't get ahead on merit, where they are in lock step for pay raises and other perks based entirely on seniority."

So at the tail end of the 2007 session, Rep. Scott Bedke, an Oakley Republican, and Sen. Robert Geddes, a Soda Springs Republican, introduced House Bill 294, which set up a new career track for Idaho teachers who accepted at-will contracts with no expectation of due process once the contract year was up.

The education committee discussed and tabled the bill, but it has reappeared as a cornerstone of Luna's plan.

"Some teachers would prefer to negotiate one on one with their schools, with their districts, for their contracts," Luna spokeswoman Melissa McGrath said.

Luna also argues that the plan allows teachers to be paid like administrators but stay in the classroom. He is not clear as to why the extra pay should be tied to a new type of contract.

The teacher's union is pretty clear as to why: "We believe that there are some legislators that do not like the fact that we lobby on our members' behalf and that our members are concerned about these issues," Wood said.

In 2003, the IEA brought thousands of teachers to the steps of the Statehouse to rally for school funding. In return, the Legislature passed the Voluntary Contributions Act, a move to strip the union's political fund. The law was found unconstitutional last year. Last week, the Attorney General's Office appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rory Jones, a Boise school board member, takes the Legislature-teacher union beef back further, to Cecil Andrus's first run for governor.

"Historically, teachers always wanted to be paid more ... when the Legislature doesn't meet the need, you get a little Democratic revival," Jones said.

The IEA is the largest political opposition group in the state, Jones said.

"They're the only political power in the state of Idaho not controlled by the Republican Party," he said.

But IEA leaders are not too worried that the Luna plan will gut their rolls, should it pass the Legislature.

An independent survey of the Association's members found that 92 percent favor the union plan, called weTEACH, which includes upping base pay for teachers across the board and some performance-based bonuses as well.

Jones said the Luna plan did not take into account the desires of most teachers, who want to increase their pay, but not fundamentally alter the whole package: "Teachers are not saying change the way we are paid, it's unfair."

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