Politics & Government

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback wants to see merit pay for teachers

First-grade teacher Holly Baalman in Valley Center. (May 8, 2015)
First-grade teacher Holly Baalman in Valley Center. (May 8, 2015) File photo

Editor’s note: Earlier versions of this story contained an incorrect time reference for when the Legislature eliminated the school finance formula. It was replaced last year with temporary block grants.

Gov. Sam Brownback says he wants to reward successful teachers with higher pay when lawmakers revamp the school finance formula.

Merit pay, the idea that teachers should be compensated based on performance, has been a controversial topic nationally in recent years.

Supporters say it enables schools to attract and retain the best teachers and acts as an incentive for high performance.

Union leaders say it discourages collaboration among teachers and relies on flawed rating systems.

Brownback has offered relatively few details about how merit pay would work in Kansas – whether it would rely on student test scores, principal evaluations or a combination of factors.

The Kansas Association of School Boards notes that local school boards already have the power to offer merit pay and warns that a new statewide mandate for merit pay would weaken local control of schools.

The Legislature eliminated the school finance formula last year at Brownback’s urging and replaced it with flexible block grants through the spring of 2017.

Brownback said he isn’t sure lawmakers will craft a new school finance formula this year, in an election year. But if they do, he wants them to consider merit pay.

The governor said his priorities are “getting more money to the classroom and giving more flexibility to the (school) administration to pay good teachers better.”

Lawmaker support

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, the Senate budget chair, said he supports merit pay and also “increased pay for those hard areas to get, you know, math and sciences, and special education.”

“That’s the hard part about unionizing employment is you kind of have to raise everybody else. It’s not as hard to find, for example, a grade school teacher as it is to find a high school science teacher. I’m in favor of being able to pay those teachers more.”

Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, the Senate education chair, called merit pay a great idea.

“I have no problem if there are teachers out there who are doing such a bang-up job that they’re worthy of six-figure incomes,” Abrams said. “If the product coming out of their classroom is worth it, I’m good with that.”

I have no problem if there are teachers out there who are doing such a bang-up job that they’re worthy of six-figure incomes.

Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, Senate education chair

Mark Desetti, legislative director for the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said merit pay creates “a world where teachers compete with each other for those limited resources and so they don’t collaborate, they don’t cooperate with each other, because by God if I help you get better I lose my merit pay.”

Desetti pointed to Texas, where a merit pay system was created under former Gov. Rick Perry and then abandoned in 2013. “It damaged the whole school system and the Legislature is the group that went in and said, ‘We were crazy, throw it out’ and they got rid of it.”

Desetti said Brownback and other Republican leaders want to pursue merit pay “because it’s cheap. … They can keep most teachers’ pay in the toilet and pay a few teachers well and say, see what we’re doing, we’re recognizing good teachers.”

They can keep most teachers’ pay in the toilet and pay a few teachers well and say, see what we’re doing, we’re recognizing good teachers.

Mark Desetti, legislative director for the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union

There are no details about where the money for merit pay would come from.

How to implement

Mark Tallman, associate executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said local school boards already have the ability to propose a merit pay plan when they negotiate contracts with teachers. They also have the power to award performance bonuses.

“The state shouldn’t try to force these plans on local boards … our membership is open to the idea, but cautious about how you’d actually implement it,” Tallman said.

The state shouldn’t try to force these plans on local boards … our membership is open to the idea, but cautious about how you’d actually implement it.

Mark Tallman, associate executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards

One of the questions is what criteria should be used and who should make the determination, Tallman said, explaining many school board members would be hesitant to rely solely on standardized test scores.

Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, said principals should determine which teachers will receive merit pay. “The principal’s going to know best,” he said.

Trabert recommended that the state eliminate pay systems based on seniority.

“In a perfect world, I’d like to see the pay for seniority go away,” Trabert said. “That could be the way that the state gets involved in it and says we’re not going to pay for seniority, you pay for performance.”

In a perfect world, I’d like to see the pay for seniority go away.

Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said giving principals the power to decide pay would make it so that “the teachers who do the most brown-nosing will get the most money. You know, as long as you don’t make any waves or cause any problems, we’re going to take care of you.”

“I don’t think it works,” he added.

Conflicting study results

Studies on the impact of merit pay have had conflicting results.

A three-year study by Vanderbilt University, published in 2010, found that students with teachers who were eligible for merit pay bonuses did not outperform students taught by teachers in a control group who were ineligible for such bonuses.

However, a 2012 study conducted by researchers from Harvard University and the University of Chicago found that students’ test scores did improve when teachers were given an $80 reward for each percentile students improved on a standardized test, with a maximum bonus of $8,000.

Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, House education chair, has previously voiced support for merit pay, but in a recent interview was cautious about requiring it of school districts.

“This gets into the area of local control, and that’s something that I have to be real careful about,” Highland said. “Yes, I have made statements that I think our best teachers should be paid more and I still believe that. But because the way the constitution and the laws are written, that is up to the local school board and the superintendent.”

Highland said state policymakers can encourage school districts to adopt merit pay, but that the decision is up to local officials.

“The school board meetings I attend, they are vehemently against it. … They don’t think you can do that fairly,” Highland added. “But if anyone has ever been in business or wherever, your production matters.”

Abrams said the state should endorse merit pay but allow local school districts to set their own criteria.

“That would have to be a local determination. I don’t want the state involved in saying this teacher is definitely the best,” Abrams said.

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3

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