Last year, Gov. Nathan Deal had everyone thinking he would make major changes in the public education system when the 2016 legislative session rolled around. The governor indicated he was going to push especially hard on the issue of how teachers are paid.
Deal wanted to junk the current system where teacher pay is based on the years of experience and the advanced degrees a teacher earns. Instead, he wanted a “merit pay” system where teachers would be paid based on their effectiveness in improving student performance, which would largely be measured by their scores on standardized tests.
Deal’s hand-picked education reform commission, which spent several months studying school funding issues, backed the governor strongly on performance-based pay. Charles Knapp, the retired University of Georgia president who chaired the commission, argued that there wasn’t much research that indicated years of experience and extra degrees had anything to do with a classroom teacher’s effectiveness. “Some master’s degrees make a difference, some don’t,” Knapp said.
That dismissive attitude caused a lot of hostility among teachers, who said that Deal and his commission were trying to run off experienced educators so that they could reduce salary and pension costs. “Any pay scale that fails to incentivize experience and education can only be construed as an attempt to drive teachers out of the profession before they reach retirement,” said Rebecca Johnson, who headed one of the ad hoc teachers’ groups. “While the state budget might benefit from paying fewer retirement benefits and lower health-care costs from fewer retirees, the children of Georgia will certainly not benefit from a revolving door of teachers.”
Teachers made sure that legislators like House Speaker David Ralston were aware of their feelings on this explosive issue. After an intense town hall meeting with teachers in his North Georgia district, Ralston said the case for merit-based pay had not been made. “I’m troubled by how you quantify and measure and get to the point that the concept wants to get at,” he said.
Surprisingly, the governor pulled back on the issue. He did not propose a change in the teacher pay scales in his State of the State address, and he said he had some idea of why teachers might be wary of the proposal.
Deal had another proposal that went over much better: He would include $300 million in his proposed state budget for a 3 percent teacher pay raise. The funds would be sent to local school boards, with the expectation that the money would be used to eliminate any remaining furlough days and provide that 3 percent pay raise. There was another $26.2 million in the budget to give pay raises for pre-K teachers as well.
“Just because we are examining ways to more appropriately allocate taxpayer dollars and put in place different models to achieve better education results, it does not mean that you are not appreciated,” Deal tried to reassure teachers.
Rather than plow ahead with the reform commission’s ideas on teacher pay and funding formulas, Deal asked the legislature instead to take a year and study them carefully. Just like that, one of the most potentially explosive issues of this legislative session was defused. It appears there won’t be any showdowns between the governor and the speaker on this issue after all.
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