From Gov. Bill Haslam on down, Republicans say the most controversial proposal before the legislature this session is aimed at giving better pay to better teachers. They say the teachers’ union stands in the way of performance-based pay, so the legislature must change the law to end collective bargaining on that issue, among others.
“This is a good bill for teachers,” House Speaker Beth Harwell said. “This is an opportunity for teachers who are good to show that they are and to be rewarded for it. This is what we owe the taxpayers of this state.”
It’s the central argument of the bill’s proponents, both the Tea Party-style Republicans trying to end all collective bargaining for teachers and the more traditional Republicans who merely want to limit it.
Speaking to lawmakers during one hearing on her bill, Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, said the reforms are needed to fix failing schools across the state, which she blamed in part on the teachers’ union.
“For too long under the old order, selfish political interests, the unions, have been allowed to dominate the discussion when it comes to setting the course of education in our state,” Maggart said. “Instead of discussing actual classroom policy and curriculum, our local school boards have constantly been dragged into debates that serve to build union influence and power, not the children we are all supposed to be concerned with.”
Yet for all the debate and rallies in support and opposition — the arguments over whether the GOP is motivated by political calculations or concerns about failing schools, over whether Republicans are steamrolling Democrats and thwarting the legislative process, over who will win the widely anticipated showdown between Republican moderates and hardliners — little attention has been paid to that main question: Will this bill result in merit pay for teachers?
Officials of teachers’ unions around the state paint the Republican claims as mere feel-good talking points intended to hide the GOP’s main motivation, which they say is busting a traditional Democratic political ally. The union officials insist, in the first place, that they don’t stand in the way of performance-based pay.
As evidence, they point to such pay plans in existence now as part of the Benwood Initiative in Chattanooga, the Gates Foundation-funded programs in Memphis, and Nashville’s five “fresh-start” schools — all of which they say were approved by teachers’ unions.
“I don’t see us as a stumbling block,” said Erick Huth, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association.
Rather, the biggest impediment is money, the unions say. Tennessee teacher pay always has lagged behind other states. As the governor emphasized in his State of the State speech this month, the “new normal” in Tennessee is even smaller government and a lower level of services.
The state is in the process of whacking more than $1 billion worth of services — the size of the crater in tax revenue left by the Great Recession. Under present estimates of economic growth, it will take until 2014 for the state’s revenue to recover to 2008’s level.
“There’s been a whole lot of legislation introduced up here this year that’s a lot of stick and not much carrot,” TEA lobbyist Jerry Winters said. “If we want to pay teachers more money, we’re all for doing that, but I don’t see anyone coming forward with any suggestions or any money to pay for it.”
“The Tennessee General Assembly isn’t going to raise taxes,” Huth added. “They just play games every year trying to figure out how they’re going to eek by. There’s no huge pool of money to pay teachers more if only they could get rid of the teachers’ union.”
All that aside, there’s another issue the legislature has yet to address: Do merit pay plans actually improve schools?
The MNEA supported a Vanderbilt University study into that question. Nearly 300 teachers, about 70 percent of all middle-school math teachers in Nashville’s public schools, volunteered to participate. Over the 2007 to 2009 school years, they were eligible for annual bonuses of up to $15,000 on the basis of their students’ test-score gains.
The results? Test scores didn’t go up.
“We sought a clean test of the basic proposition: If teachers know they will be rewarded for an increase in their students’ test scores, will test scores go up?” Vanderbilt researcher Matthew Springer said at the time. “We found that the answer to that question is no. That by no means implies that some other incentive plan would not be successful.”
Huth said the study suggests that teachers must buy into their evaluation system before bonuses will help improve schools. That makes union negotiations important, he said.
“The proponents of doing away with collective bargaining believe they know what is best for education,” Huth said. “They believe they know what’s best for teachers. They believe that by removing collective bargaining or limiting collective bargaining, that political forces within the community can impose their will upon teachers. That’s the ultimate goal of the legislation.”