When school boards and teachers unions look the other way

Years ago, the powerful director of a local teachers union told me in no uncertain terms: Differential pay for teachers in high-poverty schools wasn’t a good idea and wouldn’t help poor kids. He called it, and I quoted him, “a glitzy solution.”

So what a jolt it was to learn, after the union leader’s passing, that the big school district he helped shape for decades actually had a differential pay plan – a lucrative benefit he signed off on for a handful of teachers in the district’s elite magnet programs.

I bring this up now because of a new report that touches on teacher views about differential pay. And also because of the backdrop it brings into focus on so many ed reform issues, including expanded school choice. Too often – and I say this as respectfully as I can – school boards and teachers unions appear to lack the will to do the right thing for low-income kids.

Differential pay obviously isn’t all that and a bag of chips. But it is a tool that can be used to attract and/or keep high-quality teachers in high-needs schools. Survey after survey shows the vast majority of teachers agree.

In the latest, an Education Sector report that asked teachers about all kinds of things, 83 percent said they supported more money for teachers in low-performing schools. That’s up from 70 percent in 2008 and 80 percent in 2007. With young teachers, the results were even more lopsided: 88 percent of them liked the idea.

And yet, with few exceptions, school districts have not tried differential pay in a meaningful way. In Florida, this has been true even though state laws and rules have required it. Many districts abide by the letter of the law, offering minimal amounts that don’t make a difference, and so the vicious cycles that could be mitigated instead swirl on.

The district in Pinellas County, Fla., is no exception. That’s the district whose longtime union chief, Jade Moore, I was referring to above.

As a newspaper reporter, I occasionally talked to Jade, who died in December 2008. I was covering the state ed beat at the time, so I didn’t know him as well as my colleagues covering local schools. But I liked him a lot. Jade was charming and curmudgeonly and prone to dropping a few f-bombs. I recall some interviews dragging on too long because I was laughing too much. He was patient with me as a new ed reporter, and gracious when I started asking tougher questions. I appreciated him for that. I also happened to agree with him on many things.

But this thing with differential pay threw me for a loop. The issue came out of nowhere a couple years ago, when the superintendent, faced with steep budget cuts, proposed killing an “academic coaching supplement” that many teachers had never heard of. Worth 14 percent of a teacher’s base salary, it was only available to teachers in four high school magnet programs, including the district’s two International Baccalaureate programs. It goes without saying that the students in those programs tended to be white and wealthy.

To some, what happened next was predictable. Magnet students protested. Influential parents called school board members. The union dug in. And even the newspaper bowed up, defending the supplement as a form of merit pay. Quietly, the idea was dropped, and the supplement remains intact today.

As all this unfolded, old song lyrics kept coming back to me: The rich get richer, the poor get the picture.

It’s undeniable that teacher equity and teacher turnover are big problems in high-poverty schools. It’s indisputable that a far greater proportion of rookie teachers get their start there, that far fewer national board certified teachers can be found there, that too many duds are passed around there. There’s no doubt the consequences are devastating, given that teachers are the biggest in-school factor in student success.

Yet, the problem persists. I hate to say it, but I don’t see school boards, teachers unions, established parent groups or the media moving with urgency to take real steps to deal with it. I don’t want to sound like just another wound-up blogger (L), but I have to admit I’m frustrated that newspapers rarely write about these issues, and that attempts to mitigate them are often met with charges of “teacher bashing.” I do get a tad annoyed when folks with power either ignore these problems, or worse, try to deflect responsibility to “bad parents” and/or poor funding.

I know it’s complicated – like just about everything in public education – but I don’t buy that it’s insurmountable.  If cash could be carved out as an incentive to lure and keep top-notch teachers in marquee magnet programs, why couldn’t the same be done for high-needs schools? If Florida school districts can find $200 million a year to pay teachers extra for master’s degrees (degrees that research suggests have little connection with effectiveness) and tens of millions to pay for unused sick leave, why can’t they find a bit to beef up pay for the teachers with especially tough jobs?

To be fair, a few districts, like the one in Hillsborough County, Fla., have stepped up to try differential pay and other reforms aimed at helping low-income kids. And to its credit, Pinellas is now using federal grant to move forward with a combination merit/differential pay plan at a handful of middle schools.

It’s a start. And who knows? If more school boards and teachers unions took matters like these into their own hands, maybe others would be less likely to meddle in their business.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at rmatus@stepupforstudents.org or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at facebook.com/redefinedonline.