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The House Education Committee adjourned abruptly Thursday, leaving in limbo a bill that would offer bonus pay to effective teachers willing to work with low-income students.
HB212 would pay a bonus of $5,000 with annual increases up to $10,000 when one of the state's top-performing 5 percent of teachers works at one of the 92 most economically-challenged schools.
Teacher performance would be based on their median growth percentile, or MGP, a measurement of how much improvement students make year-to-year on standardized tests.
"These are the rock stars that can really go in and stand and deliver," said Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, the bill's sponsor.
But committee member seemed initially skeptical of the proposal, with questions about its reliance on test scores, its roughly $670,000 price tag and its premise that low-income children are in greater need of effective educators.
Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, said she was unsure if bonus pay would be enough to overcome the stigma placed on Utah's struggling schools by state programs like school grading and turnaround.
"I think we as a Legislature have got to take some responsibility for the fact that these teachers won't stay," she said. "We have shamed and humiliated these schools."
Much of the debate over the bill was driven by the committee's vice-chairwoman, West Jordan Republican Rep. Kim Coleman.
Coleman has a background in charter school administration, and began her comments with a series of mischaracterizations of school district hiring practices. The inequity of teacher quality between rich and poor areas, she suggested, is the result of school district staffing assignments.
School districts approve a candidate pool for education positions, but specific hiring and placement decisions are made by school principals.
Granite School District resource director Mitch Nerdin said there are rare cases when school placement would be determined at the district level, like after a campus closure, but teachers are typically free to pursue openings at the school of their choice.
"Teachers decide with their feet where they want to work," he said.
Nerdin spoke in favor of HB212, saying it would use the market forces already at play in public education to stop and potentially reverse the flow of effective teachers out of low-income areas.
"Market forces, as they currently stand, draw excellent teachers away from where the work is tough to where the work is less difficult," he said.
Coleman suggested the same effect could be achieved by districts refusing to fill openings in high-income schools, or by assigning teachers to work with low-income students.
But Nerdin said forcing or compelling teachers to work at specific campuses would erode morale and exacerbate the state's teacher shortage, which sees more than half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years.
"What you are proposing is that we eliminate the opportunity for highly-effective teachers to decide where they want to go," he said.
Coleman also questioned if children from affluent families do not deserve the same level of instruction as their low-income peers.
"Who is entitled to highly-effective teachers?" she said.
Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley said that all children deserve a quality education, but affluent students have support systems that economically-disadvantaged children do not.
"The only thing they have to rely on is that high-quality teacher," he said.
The committee also questioned whether the program is sustainable. Current estimates suggest the bill, if enacted, would cost roughly $670,000 in its first year and $950,000 in its second year.
Rep. Bruce Cutler, R-Murray, said those estimates may be too low, as it is unknown how many Utah teachers will achieve a sufficient MGP, and how many of those teachers will elect to work at a low-income school.
"You don't know how many will qualify until you qualify," he said.
Winder said the bill uses the previous year's test scores and only awards bonuses to teachers after they complete a full year at a school, making appropriations easier to predict. And he added that higher costs would mean the program was working, with more highly-effective teachers electing to work at low-income schools.
"That's going to be a wonderful problem for this Legislature to have," he said.
Without a vote, the bill remains with the House Education Committee, and whether it makes it on a future agenda is at the discretion of the committee chairman, Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem.