April 21, 2015 Atlanta - Gov. Nathan Deal signs House Bill 372, his plan to allow the state takeover of Georgia’s “failing” schools, at The Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Tuesday, April 21, 2015. HYOSUB SHIN/AJC

Overhaul of teacher pay could be on the way

The elimination of teacher pay scales got a preliminary nod of approval from Gov. Nathan Deal’s education reform team.

The panel he assembled to recommend changes to the way Georgia pays for education had been deadlocked over two competing proposals to overhaul the way state tax money is allocated to pay teachers.

Under the current system, in place for decades, teachers are paid based on their years on the job and their education level. Their salaries rise according to a fixed state schedule that specifies minimum pay, though some districts pay above that.

Deal wants to free up money so teachers can be paid more if they perform better or if they are teaching subjects — science, math — in which there is high demand for their talents.

But Deal also doesn’t want a formula that costs more, and the money for high performers would have to come from somewhere, like lower-performing teachers.

A proposal presented by the governor’s Office of Planning and Budget earlier this year would have eliminated the pay scale for all new teachers and for current teachers who opted out. That proposal also would have changed the funding mechanism for districts. They currently get money from the state based on where their teachers fall on the pay scale, but OPB proposed that districts be reimbursed based on a statewide average of teacher pay.

Some districts, especially those with a veteran and highly-credentialed workforce, stood to lose money in this proposal, which was strongly defended by Deal’s policy advisor, Erin Hames. They would have been reimbursed for a couple or a few years from a temporary fund of $88 million. Other districts would have won under the OPB proposal and would have been allowed to spend the windfall as they saw fit.

A competing plan from a key lawmaker serving on Deal’s panel, Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn, mirrored the governor’s proposal in allowing districts to come up with their own pay models, but retained the current district funding mechanism.

A new compromise unveiled Thursday by England’s colleague, Rep. Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta, follows the outlines of Deal’s proposal but with a significant tweak: districts would be allowed to choose how to pay teachers and would also be funded using OPB’s statewide average pay method.

But districts that might have profited under the new system would instead return the surplus to a pot to be redistributed to all districts. Also eliminated was the temporary $88 million “hold harmless” fund.

This new proposal is only in the incubation stage and far from being enacted into policy. It would have to win approval of the General Assembly, and before that it would have to emerge as a formal recommendation from Deal’s Education Reform Commission.

Charles Knapp, who chairs both the full commission and the funding subcommittee, was careful to describe the subcommittee’s support for this proposal as only a “preliminary consensus.”

Next, officials will calculate the effect on each district, which could alter the debate. Also important is the reaction of teachers, whom Georgia is working to recruit and retain. (One of the commission’s other subcommittee’s is tasked with figuring out how to do that better.) Hames and other officials have said current teachers will be grandfathered under the current pay structure if they choose, but they acknowledge the state can’t make an ironclad promise.

That’s because of another major policy shift underway: a recent state law encourages school districts to adopt new “flexibility” models or risk exposure to mandates that could prove expensive. Nearly all of Georgia’s 180 school districts — except Buford City and Webster County — are adopting one of these models. They will not be bound to the pay scale, and can come up with their own methods of paying teachers.

Craig Harper, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, one of the state’s big teacher advocacy groups, said grandfathering of the pay scale is “a big issue” for teachers. If this policy is enacted, he said, “We’re not sure how this does much to enhance the recruitment and retention efforts in Georgia.”

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