Saturday, February 9, 2008

Merit Pay Task Force—Torn Between Hope and…Realism…Cynicism…Despair?

My hopeful side likes that pro-voucher Rep. Last is looking to consult with teachers and school boards before “radically changing the way Utah teachers are paid.” From KCPW:

UEA Supports Merit-Pay Task Force
Feb 08, 2008 by Elizabeth Ziegler

(KCPW News) A merit-pay task force has won the approval of the state's largest teacher's union. A long-time foe of such initiatives, the Utah Education Association is pleased that two teachers will be on the task force.

"I think professional judgment about what is important to student achievement and good instruction is a big piece of the pie," says UEA Executive Director Susan Kuziak.

She says she's also hopeful the task force will investigate an incentive system that is not tied to students' test scores. In addition to teachers, the task force includes Legislators, State Board of Education members, and local school board members. Representative Bradley Last, of St. George, says he's proposing the task force in order to reach a consensus about merit-pay before radically changing the way Utah teachers are paid.

"If we try to implement without the support of the State Board, the State Office, the School Districts, it's not going to work," Last says.

So far he's gotten an overwhelmingly positive response. The UEA, the State Board of Education, and the Association of School Boards and Superintendents support the task force. So does the Senate Education Committee, which passed Last's proposal unanimously to the Senate Floor on Thursday. Click here for a link to the text of the bill and podcasts of the floor debates.

In the text of the bill, I like lines 62, 62a, and 63 with the amendment about a “goal-driven compensation system” and performance incentives to improve performance and student achievement. Though I believe some legislators want to hold this over teachers’ heads for their voucher opposition, the text of the bill is focused on correct principles. Lines 71-72 also recognize that the teachers of subjects besides math, English, and science aren’t less important. Hopefully, that also implicitly acknowledges that a test pass rate is not a completely accurate evaluation of teacher quality.

BUT…we know that language does not always equal intent. “Vouchers are meant to help public schools. Honest!” My realistic/cynical side doubts these legislators value teacher input and agrees with this post about the task force from the Utah Amicus:

The 19-member task force consists of 12 legislators, a governor’s designee, 2 state school board members, 2 local school board members, and 2 teachers. In the Compensation section, it states that the legislators on the task force will be paid full salary for their time - as if they were in special session - to the tune of $100 each per meeting. And what do these same legislators deem as appropriate compensation for the teachers and the school board members? How about $0?


Since all that is needed to pass official action is a quorum, four of the legislators can go home after a long day receiving lobbyists’ gifts and the remaining legislators – personally appointed by Greg Curtis and John Valentine – can still vote on whatever they want, completely ignoring any input from the teachers, school board members, and governor’s designee. Think - 8 legislators + 7 figureheads = guaranteed majority.

Two questions immediately come to mind.

WHY pay the legislators and not the other members of the task force? Is their sacrifice any greater than those other participants? The relevant compensation text in the bill is in lines 51-58. The teachers get gas money apparently, but the legislators get that same reimbursement plus extra salary. I didn’t look up the code listed, but assume that’s where Craig got his $100 dollars per meeting figure. Just as interesting are lines 87-90 that gives the total money allotted for the task force. The Senate gets 15,225 for 5 Senators and the House gets 27,405 for 9 Representatives. Or in other words, each legislator will earn $3,045 over the next year for his/her time on the task force, plus reimbursements, while the teachers and school board members get to break even—not true if you count their time, which is just as important and limited as the legislators’—for the satisfaction of being the minority in a hostile task force.

And…Craig’s second point has gotten even worse. They’ve increased the task force to 21 members, fourteen from the legislature. That’s a 2-1 ratio of legislators to other participants.

WHY put fourteen legislators and only seven non-legislators in the group? The legislators talk about local autonomy, especially concerning themselves and Washington, but don’t practice that principle themselves. Do they feel they represent the people twice as well as the locally elected school boards or the teachers? Also, those legislators will be appointed by Speaker of the House Greg Curtis and Senate President John Valentine, both huge voucher proponents and frequent participants in the lobbying meetings held around the state featuring one-sided arguments for vouchers from legislators being paid for their time by Patrick Byrne. Pres. Valentine responded to my question at one of those meetings by telling me that using the misleading $7500 figure for per-pupil education spending was “intellectually honest.” I don’t trust his judgment to pick “neutral” legislators interested in the best alternatives.

And Craig’s worry about the 8-7 votes is completely justified by lines 49-50. Any majority can vote and “constitute the action of the task force.” So 11 of those legislators could meet by themselves and vote on binding task force recommendations. I don’t think they would do anything that blatant, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see some divided votes featuring only legislators on the winning side. And maybe little things like meeting on school days, making it more difficult for the non-legislators to come? I hope I am being too cynical on that worry.

I guess we’ll see. I would like a publicized schedule of when they are going to meet and where. I would love it if they held these as open meetings with the webcam option, or at the very least, if they posted a transcript or minutes on the internet. I will be emailing my take on the proposals to whomever gets appointed to the task force.

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