Monday, June 09, 2008

Teacher Bonus Pay May Be Expanded Amid a Tight Budget

Weingarten Favored Initial Plan, Opposes 20% Boost Being Considered

By ELIZABETH GREEN, Staff Reporter of the Sun
June 9, 2008

The experiment in giving teachers cash bonuses if their students score well on tests is set to be expanded in the fall — and for the first time it would be financed by the taxpayer dollar.

The expansion is pending the finalization of the Department of Education's budget, which is being scrutinized by the City Council for changes.

If approved, the plan would expand by 20% the bonus-pay program that Mayor Bloomberg and the teachers union announced last year. It would also transfer the costs of the program, now funded by private foundations, to the public bill.

The expansion had been scheduled when the program was first announced, on the condition that funds were available.

The decision to move forward comes as the department is proposing that schools cut their budgets by at least 1.4% next year — and in some cases by as much as 6%, or nearly $1 million, if a proposed deal with the state does not come through.

The expansion would cost taxpayers $25 million and would expand the program to include 270 schools from 230 this school year, a Department of Education spokeswoman, Debra Wexler, said.

The president of the United Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, was a partner to the city in conceiving the program last year. Yesterday, she said that, given the proposed budget cuts, the bonus-pay program falls into the category of an extra that should not be expanded if it means less money will go to core services.

"I like this program. I wanted it. I like it," Ms. Weingarten said. "But not at the expense of cutting schools."

Under the city's proposal, a large portion of the funds, $20 million, would be paid for with state money granted through the Contracts for Excellence program, which sets aside a certain pot of funds to be targeted only to a specific set of programs at the city's neediest schools.

Student poverty levels determined which schools were eligible to join the pilot bonus-pay program this school year. Teaching staffs could then opt to join the program or opt out. About 90% of eligible schools participated this year.

Ms. Wexler said the program was a clear example of one of the Contracts for Excellence categories: improving teacher performance.

Ms. Weingarten disputed that, saying the bonus program was meant to encourage collaboration between teachers and administrators, not to improve teacher quality.

This year's bonus pay has not yet been disbursed, because test scores have not yet been released publicly.

If a school is shown to have made sufficient progress on those tests, it will receive a lump sum determined by multiplying the total number of union members at a school by $3,000. The pot could be split evenly between every UFT member, or committees could dole it out more creatively.

Schools use four-person "compensation committees" that include two administrators and two UFT members to make that decision.

Chancellor Joel Klein last year voiced hope that the committees would choose to draft the size of the bonuses according to the size of test-score gains made by each teacher's students.

In practice, such arrangements are extremely difficult to hash out, a teacher at one eligible elementary school, the New Lots School in East New York, said.

The teacher, Gregory Schmidt, said one problem is that only three of the school's six grades are tested by the state, and many other UFT members do not see their performance judged by student tests: the art teacher, the gym teacher, and people who work in the main office, for instance.

"You don't want to come back next fall and be sitting in the teachers' lounge with somebody who got less money than you did because of an arrangement you agreed to," Mr. Schmidt said. "If the whole thing becomes a battle amongst teachers for money, it would be crippling for school morale."

When the program was announced, school and union officials promised they would launch an outside evaluation to study it carefully.

Ms. Wexler said the city is now working with the union to find an evaluator.
Ms. Weingarten said she had been asking the department to take such a step for months, calling its progress "slow as molasses."

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