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Special Legislative Session Focuses on Salaries for Texas Teachers

By Sujata Dand, KERA 90.1 reporter

Dallas, TX –

Kay, Mansfield Teacher: Working 18 years in the business world, you have a total different mindset. There are evaluations, but the pay, the bonuses, things like that are totally different.

Sujata Dand, KERA 90.1 reporter: Kay didn't want us to use her last name. Before she started teaching in Mansfield, she worked in the corporate world for almost 20 years.

Kay: You come into the schools and everything is basically set.

Dand: For the last century, the salary structure in public schools has been based on years of service and academic credentials, virtually guaranteeing veteran teachers tenure, so the best teachers often make the same as the rest. A 2005 Harvard University study says the lack of salary differentials is increasingly keeping top graduates from a teaching career.

Sandy Kress, Former Advisor to President Bush on Education, Former Dallas School Board President: For teachers who want the profession to be treated as a profession and who want to be treated as professionals, it is very discouraging. It's very discouraging.

Dand: Sandy Kress served as a key senior advisor to President Bush on education. A former president of the Dallas school board, Kress is one of the chief architects of greater accountability in Texas schools.

Kress: In all other professions in which I'm familiar, these incentives are there for people who are willing to take on the extra challenging assignments, who are willing to commit to getting better results. And, I think those sort of incentives ought to be available in the teaching profession as well.

Dand: Most lawmakers in the Texas legislature agree. Both the House and Senate education reform bills create a bonus pool of $100 million for low-income schools that make the greatest academic gains on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills exam - better known as the TAKS. State Representative Kent Grusendorf is the chair of the House Education Committee.

Kent Grusendorf, State Representative and Chair of House Education Committee: We have got to start making wiser decisions in the allocations of our resources to keep those very talented people in the classroom. To a large extent, we lose a lot of our very best teachers. They go into the private sector where they can make more money.

Dand: Grusendorf has been promoting a second provision also included in both bills that forces all Texas school districts to set aside 1 percent of their personnel budgets for merit-based raises. Districts can choose how to reward teachers who serve as mentors, work in poorer schools, or teach hard to staff subjects like math and science.

Grusendorf: In the past, we've give across the board raises to everyone. What we're trying to do with current legislation that we're promoting is to encourage districts to make more rational decisions in rewarding the best teachers.

Dale Kaiser, President of the National Education Association Dallas Chapter: NEA Dallas is opposed to merit pay for a couple of reasons. Number one: our teachers are not paid at the national average currently. We feel that before any discussion of merit pay comes about that we have to have our teachers paid at the national average. Then, the question becomes how do you determine merit pay? The plans being discussed right now by the Texas legislature are driven by one thing, and that's the TAKS test.

Dand: Kaiser believes that's unfair - when so many factors outside of a teacher's control - impact a student's success on a standardized test.

Kaiser: It's getting worse in the classroom every year. We have more discipline problems. We're asked, or our teachers are asked, to be not only a teacher, a social worker, a psychologist, a surrogate parent. Now they have gotten into testing, they're losing approximately a full six weeks instructional time - just to do testing. They're expected to have these kids knowing more than my generation had to know at a much earlier age, but not being paid that much more than the teachers were being paid that taught me.

Dand: The starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor's degree in the Dallas ISD is close to $39,000. With annual increases, after 10 years, the salary reaches about $57,000 - for a 10 month contract. Sandy Kress:

Kress: I think there's pressure within the union that if they agree to differentiated pay that some of their members will not get as much as others. And it's a lot easier for them to have same pay.

Diana, Dallas Teacher: If you bring in pay based on testing, especially, you are going to have a lot of competition.

Dand: Diana, a third grade teacher in Dallas for 37 years, believes there are good reasons to keep pay equal. Education has traditionally been a communal profession, and she says injecting competition into the field could incite cheating on tests - hurting the learning environment for students. Diana also did not want to use her last name.

Diana: Maybe if there are just a few teachers who are going to get the pay because of just the money that's available, then you're also going have some hard feelings - one way or the other. And that can hurt a good working relationship within a school.

Dand: Diana and other teachers also complain that performance pay based on teacher evaluations could get too political because principals would favor some teachers over others. Lawmakers argue school administrators have not been selective enough. They point to the Texas Teacher Career Ladder created in the mid 80's, where principal evaluations played a part in determining pay increases. But, by the early 90's, more than 80 percent of all teachers were qualifying for bonuses. They dropped the program because it became too expensive. Representative Grusendorf:

Grusendorf: Quite honestly, there will never be enough money in the state of Texas to pay every teacher in the state of Texas what the best teacher is worth.

Dand: Kress believes merit pay could ultimately transform the profession by creating a better working environment, with more mentoring and support. And, he says, that may keep the key to holding on to the best teachers. In urban districts, half of all teachers leave in the first five years.

Kress: I think what it would say to college graduates is, "I can go out and make a mark. I can go out and get some bonus opportunities and get some additional merit. I can do that in teaching. I don't have this ceiling put on me, I don't have this lid put on me that only rises as I get older. This lid could rise by excellence or by difficulty of mission or by my coming into area where they have a special need for my knowledge and skills." That's what the effect of this will be in terms of changing the profession.

Dand: Incentive pay is expected to pass in the legislature, but teachers continue to lobby against it, saying it's not worth considering until they get a $6000-across-the-board raise, bumping them up to the national average. The last time lawmakers provided a significant salary increase was in 1999. For KERA 90.1, I'm Sujata Dand.

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