Educational reform is of great public concern for many in Oklahoma, and state lawmakers are no exception. There are several components that contribute to overall reform, and teacher performance pay is at the top of the list this legislative session. Both a House and Senate bill have been introduced to address the issue.
The Education Reform and Funding Act of 1990 made teacher incentive pay models possible at the local level, said Shelly Hickman, public affairs director for the Oklahoma Department of Education. Senate Bill 2033 is reviving the idea of teacher pay incentives, creating the infrastructure for a statewide formal evaluation system of teachers and, in doing so, making Oklahoma more competitive for approximately $175 million in federal Race to the Top grant funds.
Race to the Top is President Barack Obama's $4.35 billion competitive grant program established to encourage and reward states that are creating positive, progressive conditions for educational reform. Oklahoma was not awarded a grant in the first award phase, but the state is scrambling to meet May deadlines in hopes of winning a grant in the second award phase. Delaware and Tennessee received grants in March.
In spite of efforts to make SB 2033 a comprehensive bill to meet the grant criteria, several House representatives want to make sure teacher performance pay doesn't fall by the wayside if Oklahoma isn't awarded a Race to the Top grant. Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville, is leading that charge.
As an educator for 32 years, Sears is passionate about performance pay.
"I know there are teachers who go above and beyond every day in an effort to move our students forward, and they should be rewarded," he said.
Known as House Bill 2836, Sears' teacher performance pay bill not only introduces language for creating a performance pay program that can be designed at the local district level, it also allows for funding in the state budget to support those programs. Currently, both bills are in conference for further consideration.
"The beauty of these bills is that they are locally driven and written, so districts can develop their own plan as long as they incorporate the components of the bills," Sears said.
The bill gives districts the latitude to form their own committees with specific stipulations that must be met, such as at least four teachers being part of the committee creating the plan, making the plan available to the public for review and discussion and being approved by the State Board of Education before implementation. The plan must also include evaluation components that measure academic growth and achievement of a teacher's students, professional growth and development efforts of the teacher and a review and evaluation tool to measure progress and success of the plan.
Opponents of the bill point to the issues of funding and equity as reasons for voting against HB 2836. Rep. Ed Cannaday, D-Porum, indicated that until specific language is developed assuring that anyone in a school district can apply and qualify for performance pay, he isn't for the bill.
"There are only specific, defined criteria for the core subjects and not for the other life skill courses. All levels of equity must be considered irrespective of the subject," Cannaday said.
Life skill or non-core subjects include physical education, agricultural studies, art and music, among others.
Cannaday pointed out that two performance pay programs already exist in the state through the stipends awarded to teachers who earn their National Board Certification and the Academic Achievement Award given by the State Department of Education. Considering current economic conditions, he said he does not feel this is the time to take on funding a third program.
But Sears said HB 2836 does address equity.
"These bills are inclusive of all teaching staff," he said. "Even though the band director doesn't have established data to measure student performance, school districts have the latitude to establish their own benchmarks for those non-core subjects to measure how teachers are contributing to the overall success of their students and the entire school."
Cannaday and his colleagues who joined him in voting against the bill still do not believe the language is sufficient to assure equity.
"As a former principal, I know it will be a huge undertaking and expense to take on establishing the criteria and baseline data necessary for measuring student performance in the non-core subjects," he said.
Outside the Oklahoma Legislature, many argue the topic of teacher performance pay must be addressed.
"We're supportive of the concept," said Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union. "Performance pay is an element of reform than many interest groups want to see, and for educators to ignore those stakeholders is a fatal mistake. The AFT is not going to make that mistake."
Those who have declared their candidacy for Oklahoma superintendent of public instruction also know this will be a topic of interest on the campaign trail.
"I am in support of performance pay for teachers because it is an integral part of overall educational reform," said candidate Janet Barresi, who also feels a good performance play plan should have multiple factors. "Testing is only a small part of it. Other factors to consider include student and teacher attendance, a teacher's effort at pursuing continuing education and how the teacher contributes to the school's team effort for overall improvement."
Sen. Susan Paddack, D-Ada, has also considered the subject as she prepares to run for state superintendent.
"There was a time when it (performance pay) had a negative connotation because some models were said to be politically motivated, but now there are some very good models," she said. "I think a performance pay plan is a good indicator of how serious a state is about transforming its schools and a great opportunity for rewarding teachers who go above and beyond. It helps to keep those teachers in the classroom."
Ultimately, Sears said he would like to see both bills passed and signed by the Gov. Henry, with HB 2836 being a backup to SB 2033. This would assure that even if Oklahoma is not a Race to the Top grant recipient, the teacher performance pay issue will remain alive. "Sherry Fair
Components of House Bill 2836
"Measures student academic growth and achievement using performance goals and benchmarks for improvement of individual students.
"Measures professional growth and development efforts for improvement by individual
"A review and evaluation tool measures progress and success.
"Minimum performance pay award shall not be less than $1,000 per year.
photo State Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville