The Los Angeles Unified School District has instituted a pay incentive program for high-level administrators, a move that is largely symbolic now but that some officials and board members hope will pave the way for more merit-based compensation in the future.
"I don't believe everyone is the same and I do believe there are individual skills and they should be rewarded," said Supt. Ramon C. Cortines. "I would hope some of the bargaining units would pick this up on their own."
Cortines informed the Board of Education of his plan in a closed meeting Tuesday.
The incentive pay is mandatory for two new senior administrators who report directly to Cortines. And 17 current employees have the option of joining the program, in which they could increase or lose up to 10% of their salary depending on several measures, including student test scores.
"The district is moving in a more progressive manner," said board member Yolie Flores Aguilar, who supports merit pay for all district employees. Flores Aguilar on Tuesday won support for a controversial plan that would allow charter groups and other outside operators to take over as many as 250 schools.
Only a few districts in the nation tie employee salary to student test scores, a move that most teacher unions have staunchly opposed.
With the pay incentive program and Flores Aguilar's resolution, the nation's second-largest school system is moving in step with the federal government, which has been pushing for greater educational accountability.
"They're discrete events, but they seem to be linked to the Obama administration's direction," said Priscilla Wohlstetter, director of the Center on Educational Governance at USC.
Administrators would be evaluated on several criteria, including the district's overall performance on state tests. Depending on their job title, employees would also be judged on their local district's performance and if they met negotiated, individual goals.
The overall cost should be small. If every eligible employee participates and meets all of their goals, the plan would cost about $300,000. District officials plan to seek private funds.
The employees affected by the plan, including local district superintendents, are not unionized and the move did not need school board approval. Unions would have to agree to any future pay-for-performance structures.
Union leaders seemed open to bonuses for campuses but were cool to rewarding only individuals.
"When people feel their pay is going to be tied to performance, they're less willing to take risks. When you inject a level of competition it creates a tendency for people to be suspicious of each other and lessens their willingness to work together," said Judith Perez, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, who said she was unaware of the move.
A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said his members might consider school-wide bonuses but were skeptical of rewarding high-level administrators.
"We're creating bonuses for people who are light-years away from the classroom," he said. "This is one of those business schemes that probably worked in the 1950s in General Motors but clearly does not work anymore."
Some board members said they hoped that incentive pay could help attract and retain talented employees unwilling to work for district wages.
"Every time we recruit people from the outside, it comes up," said board President Monica Garcia. "We ran into much smaller districts that compensate at higher levels."
She said she would be interested in exploring paying bonuses to an entire school staff for improvement but said the district would have to study the issue carefully.
"There is no way to compare the world of the senior manager to the world of the teacher on the ground," she said. "But I think we are going to explore: How do you focus on results?"
Board member Tamar Galatzan said she hoped that unions would be open to merit pay models but cautioned that the district needed to give teachers tools, including more control of their schools and input, to be effective.
Board member Richard Vladovic, a former senior administrator, expressed reservations. "I'm not there yet to pay people for a job they should be doing already," he said.
At a state hearing in Sacramento on Wednesday, union leaders testified about their misgivings over linking test scores to teacher evaluations. They urged legislators not to rush to apply for federal Race to the Top funding without considering the consequences.
Patricia Rucker, a California Teachers Assn. legislative advocate, said "a simple arbitrary line in the sand" would be an inadequate measure of teacher effectiveness.