Auditors: Georgia can’t prove $120 million in teacher bonuses did much

Flaws were pointed out previously: “Basically, nothing was done.”
Two reviews of a state program meant to boost teacher proficiency in subjects such as math show there is no proof the program works.

Two reviews of a state program meant to boost teacher proficiency in subjects such as math show there is no proof the program works.

Georgia taxpayers have been spending $15 million a year on a program designed to raise the level of math and science instruction in public schools, yet the government has produced scant evidence that the money has made a difference, and there’s an indication that some of it was misspent.

A cumulative $120 million has gone toward salary incentives to increase the number of K-12 teachers with extra training in math and science. A special examination by state auditors found some of the money went to teachers no longer qualified for it. It also questioned whether the overall investment has paid off.

The results of the special examination, published by the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts in May, should come as no surprise: The agency did a review three years ago that produced similar findings. Recommendations to tighten the program and study its effectiveness were mostly met with inaction, said Leslie McGuire, a division director of the auditing agency.

“Basically, nothing was done,” she said.

Two education agencies come in for criticism: The Professional Standards Commission, which, among other tasks, oversees teacher credentialing; and the Georgia Department of Education. Both have responded that they are doing what they can but that others share responsibility. The PSC said DOE should conduct a study of effectiveness, since the education agency monitors student achievement. DOE, meanwhile, points the finger at the Georgia General Assembly, which created the incentive program and ordered the examination of its performance.

“We don’t have the authority to choose not to dispense funds that have been allocated by the General Assembly,” a DOE spokeswoman said.

Teacher pay has become a hot topic, with educators in other states walking out of the classroom in protests for more money. Georgia didn’t see the same volatility, likely because of past pay raises and because growing tax revenues led Gov. Nathan Deal and state lawmakers to increase the education budget. Until this year, the General Assembly routinely ignored its own formula for spending on schools, underfunding them.

A career in teaching has become less attractive, with reports of a national teacher shortage and high attrition among newer teachers in Georgia. Testing was the most common complaint in one state survey a few years ago, though pay, which was subsequently increased, also was a concern. School districts have reacted by hiring educators with less training.

Teachers with expertise in math and science — key subjects in an increasingly technological society — are hard to find. That’s why Georgia lawmakers passed House Bill 280 in 2009, with prodding by Gov. Sonny Perdue. The law gives elementary school teachers $1,000 per year if they earn an endorsement in math or science. And new middle and high school teachers certified to teach those subjects get bumped half a decade ahead on the salary schedule, meaning they are paid as if they have more experience. Both programs have been capped at five years, for a maximum payment of $5,000 for the elementary school teachers and roughly four times that amount for the teachers in the higher grades.

The size of the payout is perhaps the biggest weakness at the elementary school level: The schooling to earn the endorsement costs about as much as the bonuses. Other flaws noted by the state examiners: Teacher colleges and hiring departments in schools are not telling teacher candidates about the incentives because the state hasn’t promoted them much and because the money isn’t guaranteed. (The funding is subject to legislative approval each year.)

These shortcomings limit the reach of the program, but they don’t necessarily waste money. Four other problems cited in the findings could, though:

  • There's been no attempt to measure whether the elementary school bonuses resulted in better instruction.
  • "Numerous" teachers were given retention bonuses though they had too many years of experience to qualify.
  • The bonuses are paid out in the summer, after teachers — many of whom don't realize they have one coming — have already decided whether to renew their contracts for the next school year.
  • Most school hiring officers surveyed by the state said the middle and high school bonuses had not improved recruiting, and barely half believed they had improved retention.

The state education department says it can’t do much about these issues without legislative intervention. Lawmakers would have to amend their budgeting process to change the payment schedule, and they’d have to pay for improvements to systems needed to track teachers who qualify for the retention payments.

“We’ll engage in conversations with the General Assembly on ways the program could be strengthened and made more effective,” DOE spokeswoman Meghan Frick said.

Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn, chairs the legislative committee that requested the 2015 review. He was atop a tractor pulling a hay baler when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reached him by telephone in mid-June, and said he hadn’t had time to read the the new report. But he said he hears from rural school districts that are having a hard time finding qualified math and science teachers and that a couple of superintendents told him the bonus program had helped. He isn’t blaming the flawed implementation on the education agency, which is run by an elected superintendent and is therefore independent from other state agencies.

“It is Georgia DOE, and they kind of do what they want to do sometimes,” he said, “but I think their folks realize it’s beneficial.” Lawmakers on his House Appropriations Committee will eventually read the report and decide whether to change the program, he said, perhaps tailoring it to rural counties.

Ben Scafidi, an economist at Kennesaw State University, said bonus pay programs might be more effective if designed and administered at the local level. The state bureaucracy may be too unwieldy to do this effectively, he said, adding, “it is clear that those in charge of administering the program, as designed, have no sense of urgency … .”

Research has found that these pay incentives can reduce teacher turnover.

An academic paper released last fall found that bonuses of $1,200 in Florida and $1,800 in North Carolina reduced attrition.

The paper was co-authored by Tim Sass of Georgia State University, an economics professor who just happens to be finalizing a study of Georgia’s bonus program. With all its flaws, this state’s higher grades pay incentives performed about as well as those in Florida and in North Carolina, Sass’s paper will say. “In all three cases,” he said, “we found that these programs did improve retention.”

Math, science teacher bonuses

Teachers in kindergarten through fifth grade can earn an extra $1,000 a year for five years if they earn an “endorsement” in math or science, but the training programs cost about as much as the bonus amount and aren’t available in all parts of the state. About 1,000 teachers have this special training, about 6 percent of those eligible.

New teachers in middle and high school can get a bump in pay worth as much as $5,000 a year at first, declining over time. About 3,500 are getting this pay bonus, which is intended to discourage them from quitting. But the number dropped nearly 5 percent over the past few years. Many teacher candidates aren’t told about the program. Also, some teachers who aren’t new were improperly paid the bonus money.