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Bill to give teachers at low-income schools a bonus clears Utah House committee without a vote to spare

Published February 15, 2017 10:45 pm

Measure proposes a $5K bonus to attract educators to at-risk schools; critics wary of emphasis on testing.
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It's human nature to look for work environments that are safe and comfortable, Weber State University education professor Forrest Crawford said Wednesday.

But in the context of schools, Crawford said, that natural inclination results in many of Utah's best teachers working in affluent and homogeneous classrooms that have fewer academic needs.

"Teachers are not necessarily inclined to graduate from a program and go to a high-risk [school]," he said. "We have to be able to encourage that in as many ways as we can."

Crawford was speaking in favor of HB212, which would create a pilot program to pay $5,000 to effective educators who teach at low-income schools. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, relies on a metric called median growth percentile, or MGP, to identify teachers who show high levels of student growth on standardized tests.

Roughly 5 percent of Utah teachers would be eligible — described as Utah's "rock stars" by Winder — with bonuses awarded if those teachers remain at or transfer to one of the state's 100 most economically impacted campuses.

"Let's give it a chance," Winder said, "and see what it can do."

The House Education Committee first heard the bill two weeks ago, with members adjourning without a vote. Since then, Winder drafted a substitute bill that requires participating school districts to match the program's state funding, which would cut the measure's price tag from roughly $900,000 to $365,000.

Those changes were enough to secure the minimum support of the committee, which voted 6-4 on Wednesday to advance HB212 to the House floor.

HB212 was not among prioritized funding requests approved by the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Monday. But panel Co-Chairman Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, is the bill's Senate sponsor, and 21 lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors, including House Majority Leader Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville.

Winder's proposal is supported by the United Way of Salt Lake and by the Salt Lake Chamber, whose public policy director, Michael Parker, touted the bill as an innovative approach to assisting low-income children.

"This is a targeted intervention with a defined goal in place," he said.

But Sara Jones, a spokeswoman for the Utah Education Association, said the use of MGP places too much weight on standardized test scores, while excluding teachers whose subjects are not included in annual testing, like art, history or social studies.

"About 70 percent of secondary teachers don't teach a test subject," Jones said. "They wouldn't be eligible."

And lawmakers who opposed the bill questioned if the money would be better spent as unrestricted per-student funding, which would allow school districts to create their own pay incentives for high-turnover schools.

"They should be able to recruit and retain a teacher for that population of students based on demand," said Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden.

Lawmakers expect to increase per-student funding by 3 percent this year. Each 1 percent increase costs roughly $30 million, with the $365,000 price tag of HB212 roughly equal to a 0.01 percent hike in per-pupil funds.

Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, said the state makes "tragic" assumptions about low-income families. And HB212, she said, sends a message that no one wants to teach low-income children and that teachers must be compelled to work with those populations.

She also questioned the validity of MGP as a measure of teacher quality and said the bill could exacerbate turnover at low-income schools by drawing lines between effective and ineffective teachers.

"We do need to address the needs of these schools," she said. "I don't believe this is the way to do it."

But Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, said that at-risk students are at a disadvantage, and some teachers are better able to meet their needs.

"We're making this bigger than what it is," he said of HB212. "This is just an attempt to even the playing field a little bit."


Twitter: @bjaminwood






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