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Senate rejects merit pay for teachers

Sat., March 1, 2008, midnight

BOISE – The Idaho Senate rejected a controversial teacher merit pay plan Friday, after an impassioned debate that ran more than two hours.

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, the bill’s sponsor, called the bill a “bold step,” and said, “pay for performance has been shown to raise student achievement and to lower the number of teachers leaving the profession.”

But critics said the bill, SB 1436, wouldn’t accomplish that. The legislation, a revised version of state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna’s Idaho State Teacher Advancement and Recognition System, or iSTARS, died on a 16-19 vote.

Idaho should “recognize the teachers who do an outstanding job of delivering a lesson that catches the attention of the students and causes the student to learn,” state Sen. Stan Bastian, R-Eagle, told the Senate. But, he said, “None of that is in this plan.”

Luna originally proposed a $60 million merit pay plan, which, among other provisions, would have required teachers to give up their continuing contract rights, sometimes called tenure, in exchange for higher pay. After days of well-attended public hearings, much debate and multiple revisions, the final bill offered $20.55 million in bonuses to teachers based on student test scores, taking leadership positions or teaching in hard-to-fill jobs. Those who didn’t get the bonuses would get only 1 percent raises next year.

State Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, told the Senate, “I would submit to you that this is the first step – we have to start somewhere. I don’t think anybody here disputes that we aren’t paying our teachers well enough now.”

Opposition included strong comments from Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, who noted that the modified plan comes in $9 million to $10 million over the amount the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has targeted for public school funding next year. If the bill passed, Cameron told the Senate, it’d mean other cuts in education to make up the difference, including eliminating Luna’s proposed math initiative and no money for his proposed 1 percent increase in discretionary funding to school districts.

State Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, favored the bill. “We’ve spent dollars over the years, and no one seems to be happy with what the program is doing,” he said. “We can continue to do the same thing, or we can be willing to step out and make some bold changes.”

The Idaho Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has offered to work with Luna and lawmakers to develop a consensus teacher merit pay plan, and last week told the Senate Education Committee it would put up $15,000 toward the cost of an interim committee to work on that over the summer. But Luna told the panel that even if SB 1436 failed, he wouldn’t meet with the IEA. After today’s vote, his spokeswoman, Melissa McGrath, said, “We haven’t discussed that yet.”

IEA President Sherri Wood said the offer still stands. She said her office was inundated with calls and e-mails from teachers after the vote Friday. “They are so thrilled that we have a second chance at this, to come up with a workable solution,” she said.

McGrath said, “The superintendent wants to applaud the 16 courageous senators who did vote to change and improve teacher pay in Idaho. It’s disappointing that the ultimate decision was to stay with the status quo.”

McGrath said Luna won’t be pitching any new pay plan this session.

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