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Teachers Unions Blast Governor’s Merit Pay Plan

Times Staff Writers

With only a few sentences in his State of the State speech Wednesday night, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sent a shockwave through much of the education community.

“I propose that teacher pay be tied to merit, not tenure,” Schwarzenegger said. “And I propose that teacher employment be tied to performance, not to just showing up.”

That proposal immediately drew harsh criticism from union leaders, who warned that such a plan would trigger an all-out fight between the governor and unions, and from some administrators who consider the plan untenable and far too costly.

Schwarzenegger’s merit pay proposal comes as the governor is also seeking a $2-billion cut from public schools in the coming year’s budget and suspending a voter-approved initiative that ensured that schools would receive at least 40% of state spending each year.

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“It’s not going to be easy,” said Education Secretary Richard Riordan. “But the governor feels that unless you hold people accountable in the public sector the way you did in the private sector, you’re not going to get very far.”

Individual school districts -- in cooperation with their local collective bargaining units -- would have to determine how to gauge teachers’ performance, Riordan said. Additional details of the plan will be rolled out soon, he said.

Terry Pesta, president of the San Diego Education Assn., which represents 8,300 teachers, scoffed at the idea of linking pay to performance, saying it would wreak havoc on contracts already in place. “It’s a crazy idea ... just another blast at teachers,” Pesta said.

Pesta and a number of other union leaders in California questioned what criteria would be used to gauge a teacher’s success.

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And John Perez, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said this was the wrong time to discuss merit-based pay, given that the governor was also threatening to cut public education funding.

Cutting funding to classrooms further discourages people from joining the teaching profession, said Perez, whose union represents 45,000 teachers.

“Dick Riordan thinks merit-based pay is going to drag people into education?” Perez said. “That’s la-la land.”

Al Mijares, superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District, said linking teachers’ pay to their performance in the classroom may sound “like the right thing to do, because you want to reward teachers for doing a good job. But when you get down to the practical application of it, it falls apart and causes contention.

“What criteria would the state use?” Mijares asked. “What standards would be in place to determine how much a teacher gets paid? It always comes back to questions of fairness.”

Still, not everyone is adamantly opposed to the proposal.

Arlene Ackerman, superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District and a member of the Teaching Commission, a national organization that supports merit-based pay, said that it may be what is needed to attract highly qualified teachers and reward those who work in impoverished urban schools.

“We have to treat teaching as we do other professions,” she said. Administrators and unions, she added, must realize “that there are teachers who work in areas of specialty or in tough schools that require special skills. We should pay them for getting results.”

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Jose Huizar, president of the Los Angeles Board of Education, also thinks Schwarzenegger’s plan is worth considering. “One of the best ways we could close the achievement gap [between white and minority students] is to focus on the quality of teaching in the classroom,” he said. “And merit-based pay has the possibility of improving the quality of education for those schools that need to improve.”

Districts and states that have switched to merit pay systems have seen varying results. They have tailored their plans to take into account the specifics of their schools, judging teachers by criteria that include -- but are not limited to -- students’ test scores.

Denver voters will decide in November on a plan to increase property taxes in order to fund merit-based pay for teachers. That plan grew out of a 12-school pilot program and requires what district spokesman Mark Stevens called “a conversation” between teachers and their principals, who decide how teachers should be judged.

Six years ago, Cincinnati public school teachers and district officials agreed, in theory, to a “pay for performance” plan that pegged a teacher’s base salary to the results of their evaluations. But teachers balked over concern that evaluations were too subjective, with no clear understanding of what would distinguish one teacher’s performance from another’s.

“As long as teachers saw subjectivity instead of objectivity, they were not going to trust it,” said Sue Taylor, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers.

Today, the district offers some financial incentives to veteran teachers who take added responsibilities and prevents under-performing teachers from receiving raises until they have improved.

Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, said few districts or states that use merit pay are comparable to California.

“There is no model or existing program in the U.S. that you could base this on that is widespread,” he said. “The states that have done this, like Tennessee and Texas, had it and then abolished it.... Everybody was getting these high merit ratings and getting paid more, and it cost too much.”

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Some educators believe that California’s education code prohibits the state’s approximately 310,000 teachers in public schools from being judged strictly on the basis of standardized testing.

Marsha Bedwell, a lawyer for the California Department of Education, said it was too early to say whether Schwarzenegger’s compensation proposal would run afoul of the education code.

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Times staff writer Duke Helfand contributed to this report.


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