School proposal criticized; Perry defends incentives derided by teachers, poorer districts

By Terrence Stutz and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

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Gov. Rick Perry spelled out more of his $500 million plan to improve public schools Tuesday as key parts of his proposal came under fire from teacher groups, property-poor school districts and the state comptroller.

The governor’s latest school funding ideas, unveiled before an expected special legislative session this spring, proposed cash incentives for good teachers and more money for schools that successfully teach algebra and educate students with limited English skills.

“I believe that it is good public policy to reward proven teachers that embody excellence in the classroom with financial incentives,” Mr. Perry told several hundred school administrators at a conference in Austin.

“We should not be afraid to single out our top educational professionals for additional pay out of fear of bucking the status quo.”

On Monday, Mr. Perry pitched the first components of his plan, including financial incentives for schools that cut their dropout rates and improve test scores. Under pressure from school districts and a lawsuit against the state, the Legislature is expected to overhaul how Texas funds public education.

Tuesday, the governor was greeted with scattered laughter when he told administrators that districts would have to match state funds to qualify their teachers for the proposed $5,000 bonuses, with half coming from the state and half from the local school district.

Teachers could earn another $5,000 from the state if they are assigned or choose to teach in a school that has a record of low achievement.

Teacher groups immediately ripped into the idea.

“The citizens of Texas want to see a highly qualified, certified, well-paid teacher in every classroom, and the governor’s plan won’t get that done,” said Texas State Teachers Association President Donna New Haschke, insisting that all teachers need more.

Working on commission

Brock Gregg of the Association of Professional Texas Educators said teachers “do not need a carrot dangled in front of them in order to do their best. Texas’ dedicated educators did not enter the teaching field to work on commission.”

But Bill Hammond of the Texas Association of Business supported the idea, contending that performance incentives work for companies and will work for public schools. He called the plan “far-reaching” and “visionary.”

State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn was among the critics of Mr. Perry’s proposal. The two Republicans have been at odds on a variety of issues over the last several months.

“I am afraid that the governor’s plan leaves too many children and teachers behind,” Ms. Strayhorn said, adding that she thinks the various incentives may widen the funding gap between high-wealth and low-wealth districts because higher-wealth districts are in a better position to qualify for the incentives.

“It may work in some instances, but it appears that it widens the gap on funding equity,” she said. “The state has to pick up more of the tab, and we’ve got to have equity.”

Scott McCown, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities and one-time judge in the state’s school finance litigation, said the plan would turn back the clock on funding equity in Texas, giving rich school districts more and poor districts less.

Perry rejects barbs

Noting that Mr. Perry wants to eliminate the “Robin Hood” system, under which high-wealth districts are forced to send money to poor ones, Mr. McCown said: “If you offer an incentive system in lieu of an equitable and adequate system, it will be a disaster. It will be extraordinarily less equitable than what we now have.”

Mr. Perry rejected the criticism that his proposal would harm funding equity among school systems.

“There are a number of districts that are not rich that are looking forward to the opportunity of taking advantage of these incentive-based programs,” the governor said. “They’re willing to perform for those dollars so they can help their children.”

Mr. Perry said he was “stunned that anyone would say they don’t want any of these dollars.”

“Once people have really taken a look at this, you’re going to hear a lot of teachers, administrators, parents and taxpayers say this is good public policy that is going to make our schools better,” he said.

The head of the major association of property-wealthy school districts said he thought the plan would reward those districts more than poor ones.

“I think it probably would cause some sort of equity problem – I don’t know how big of one,” said Clayton Downing, executive director of the Texas School Coalition. “It’s only common sense. Your districts that score high now and are exemplary will see most of the benefit.”

Dr. Downing, a former Lewisville superintendent, said he didn’t object to incentive programs in theory. But he said he is frustrated that the governor was focusing on incentives instead of funneling more money into basic school funding.

“We honestly do need more capacity and more money – for all kids, not just rich districts or poor districts.”

Texas would not be the first state to reward schools for strong academic performance. The Florida School Recognition Program, for instance, offers an extra $100 per student to schools that have high average test scores.

A wider gap?

Critics there have said the program widens the gap between rich and poor. One newspaper analysis found that two-thirds of the program’s money was going to schools with above-average wealth.

“It’s the middle class pulling resources to itself,” said Walter Tschinkel, a Florida State University professor who has been critical of the program. “I’m not opposed to rewarding schools for performance. But this doesn’t measure performance. It measures primarily the starting material schools are handed.”

Dr. Tschinkel said that more than 70 percent of test score differences in Florida schools were attributable to the socioeconomic status of students, not school quality.

A spokesman for Mr. Perry said critics of his incentive programs “need to explain why they believe some Texas students cannot achieve a high level of excellence.”

“To say that one particular group of students can’t compete is truly the hard bigotry of low expectations,” said Robert Black, the spokesman.

The governor’s incentive pay program for teachers would be set up with a $200 million fund that would be used to give half of the $5,000 bonuses for teachers who demonstrate excellence in the classroom. Awards would be based on individual campus achievement and flow through the district directly to teachers locally selected for effectiveness.

Terrence Stutz reported from Austin and Joshua Benton from Dallas. Staff writer Christy Hoppe in Austin contributed to this report.