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Idaho House approves merit pay system for teachers

BOISE – A bill requiring merit pay for teachers cleared the Idaho House on Wednesday, sending it to the governor’s desk and giving the state schools superintendent a second big win in his push for sweeping school reform.

Teachers and their supporters protested at after-school rallies across the state Wednesday in response.

The bill’s passage came a day after legislation removing most collective bargaining rights from Idaho’s teachers also was approved by the House.

The House’s 44-26 vote in favor of the teacher merit-pay bill, SB 1110, came despite the lack of a funding source for the bill, a key point for opponents.

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, who didn’t speak during the two-hour-plus debate on the bill, said afterward he opposed it for that reason. The first-year cost of the new merit-pay program, in 2013, is estimated at $38 million; in each subsequent year, it would cost the state an estimated $51.3 million.

“I think we’ll be back a year from now, trying to figure out why we’re lowering teacher salaries to pay for ‘pay for performance,’ and I don’t think that’s good,” Moyle said.

Under the bill, teachers could earn bonuses for teaching in hard-to-fill positions; for teaching in schools with improved student test scores; and for taking on leadership roles including mentoring new teachers.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, bristled at suggestions that the bill is an “unfunded mandate.” “This is statutory spending,” he said. “That means it gets funded automatically from monies appropriated to fund public schools.” Nonini is chairman of the House Education Committee.

Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, said the House Health and Welfare Committee, which she chairs, is trying to make deep and difficult cuts in the Medicaid program, and that this bill would spend money the state doesn’t have. She said she struggles with the idea that her committee’s work is “to enable this.”

Said McGeachin, “I totally support the concept of pay for performance, and I applaud the efforts of the sponsors of the bill. I would like to be able to offer some additional opportunities for paying our teachers, but I do believe that this, in a sense, is an unfunded mandate, in that we have not identified a revenue (source) that would be able to pay for this. And by putting it into statute, it will present for further pressure on the education budget in the future.”

Democrats including Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, a retired teacher, spoke out against the measure. Ringo said Idaho in the past has promised pay programs like this one – including a career-ladder program in 1980, when she was teaching, and a mentoring program – and then, despite much work on the plans, never implemented them because there was no money.

Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, said making promises to teachers of extra pay in the current tough economic times without any funding source “just seems cruel.”

When he addressed several hundred teachers and supporters at a rally across from the state Capitol several hours later, the crowd broke into a chant of “Cronin for Governor.”

Nonini told the House, “The way we pay Idaho teachers is archaic. It fails to recognize excellence and reward the great teachers we have in Idaho classrooms today. Idaho teachers are solely paid on how much education they have … and how many years they have in the classroom,” which Nonini called “inputs that are irrelevant.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna hailed the bill’s passage Wednesday as “another monumental step toward reforming our public education system.” ”

The third bill in Luna’s package, to increase class sizes in grades 4-12 and eliminate 770 teaching jobs in the next two years to generate savings to be funneled into technology upgrades and performance pay, remains stalled in a Senate committee.

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