School districts reject merit pay program

AUSTIN, TX The state's District Awards for Teacher Excellence program had recommended a $3,000 minimum bonus per teacher for achievement in improving test scores and other student progress. But the decision by so many districts to bail out of the plan -- mostly because of financial concerns -- means there will be more money for the districts that are staying in.

Participating school districts will share the merit pay money beginning in the 2008-09 school year.

An official at one of the districts that first decided to participate and then recently opted out said the decision was based on concerns about language in the program that suggested school officials should be prepared in the future to pay the bonuses with local funds. The school, Grapevine-Colleyville near Dallas, will forgo a $650,000 grant from the state.

"When they looked at what it would take to be eligible for the program and the fact that state funds could not be guaranteed in future years, they had second thoughts," said Karen Moxley, an English teacher at Cross Timbers Middle School and the president of the Grapevine-Colleyville Education Association. "It just wasn't a good fit for our district."

Since last fall, superintendents have complained about a decision by state Education Commissioner Robert Scott to require that districts put up a 15 percent match to receive a state grant under the DATE program.

Scott has said the match is a relatively small amount of the total and gives school districts an investment in the program.

"There is a lot of concern about future funding increases that school districts may not get," said Cindy Clegg of the Texas Association of School Boards, referring to the state guidelines cautioning that districts may eventually have to fund the incentive payments.

"It takes a lot of time and effort to put a plan like this together," she said. "Until there is a clear commitment and some funding stability, you are going to see districts approach this tentatively."

Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said funding is contingent on future appropriations from the Legislature, and school districts should approach the plan with that in mind.

"We wish we could predict long-term funding for our programs, but when the Legislature operates on a two-year budget, we cannot guarantee anything longer than that," she said.

The program, and a companion merit pay plan aimed at rewarding teachers in schools with a high percentage of low-income children, were part of the school reform package adopted by the Legislature in 2006.

Among the 336 districts that will be offering bonuses next year are the 10 largest districts in the state, including Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Austin and Arlington.

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