Georgia slashes teacher bonuses

More than 2,000 of Georgia’s most highly certified teachers are getting hit with the biggest pay cuts in the profession this fall as the state trims spending.

Those educators are taking larger pay cuts than Georgia’s other 120,000 teachers because of the state’s decision to slash the 10 percent bonuses they have received for earning national board certification.

Many teachers who hold the certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards will likey see their pay drop a minimum of $3,000 to $4,000 this year. And for some, that’s on top of local salary cuts or furloughs.

“It’s devastating,” said Pam McCann, a Cobb County middle school teacher and a single mother of two who was first national board certified in 2002. “It’s an insult to think I would have to move somewhere else to be paid what I am worth.”

One Hall County couple who have both earned national board certification, Steven and Charity Wang, combined earn about $11,000 to $12,000 in bonuses per year. That will be cut almost in half.

“There may be a lot of very thin soup eaten at our house this year,” said Steven Wang, who teaches history, government and economics at North Hall High School.

The impact is being felt throughout the state, where teachers have for about a decade been receiving 10 percent bonuses for spending hundreds of hours putting together portfolios of classroom work, videotaping classroom lectures and passing national assessments to earn the certification.

The process costs $2,500, but the state has programs to help pay at least part of that cost. The certificate is good for 10 years and teachers who earn it can renew it. Teachers say they were promised the 10 percent bonus for the life of the certificate.

With the state slashing spending in every area of government, Gov. Sonny Perdue proposed eliminating the bonuses in his budget for fiscal 2010, which began July 1.

Lawmakers went about half way, agreeing to allocate $7.2 million. The Department of Education said the national board certified teachers will get just over half of what they’ve received in the past.

State officials say they had little choice but to cut the bonus program because of the massive drop in revenue they’ve seen during the recession.

“There was nothing in the budget that wasn’t cut,” said House Appropriations Chairman Ben Harbin (R-Evans), a supporter of the bonuses.

Some teachers and education officials say Perdue has tried to gut the bonuses for years because they were a pet project of his predecessor, Roy Barnes. That’s an accusation Perdue officials have denied.

Perdue has pushed for the state to move toward rewarding teachers based on the performance of students rather than on educators obtaining advanced training.

“This is a certification process that is not tied to any student achievement,” said Bert Brantley, the governor’s spokesman. “The governor realizes how difficult it is to get (the national certification). There is definitely a benefit you get from going through the process. But philosophically, do you reward achievement and performance (of students) or certification and training?”

Brantley said if money is available next year, Perdue will put it into programs that reward teachers based on student performance, rather than restoring the certification bonuses.

How much the certification helps students in the classroom has long been debated.

The National Research Council said in a report last year that students taught by board-certified teachers made greater gains on achievement tests than students taught by non-certified teachers. However, the report said it was unclear if the certification process itself leads to higher-quality teaching.

In Georgia, bonuses for teachers earning certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards began in the 1990s with the backing of Gov. Zell Miller. At the time, only a few state teachers and fewer than 100 nationally had earned the certification.

That figure is now nearly 74,000 nationally, including 15 percent of teachers in North Carolina and 13.7 percent in South Carolina. The percentage is still relatively small in Georgia, about 2 percent.

Many other states offer similar bonuses to certified teachers.

In Georgia, the cost of the program grew steadily as more and more teachers got the certification. By last year, the state was paying out about $13 million in bonuses to 2,100 board-certified teachers.

With this year’s budget troubles, some school districts have been slow to pass on even the smaller bonuses, fearing the state will not reimburse them next spring because of continued spending cuts.

For instance, the Cobb County school district sent out a letter last month telling board-certified teachers they will get a $1,000 local supplement at the end of December. However, they won’t get the state bonus until May, and that’s only if the Georgia Department of Education allocates the money.

Doug Goodwin, a spokesman for the system, said, “We can’t pass along funds that we don’t have.”

Hall County has spared its national board certified teachers a 2.4 percent salary cut that other teachers received. “The rationale was they had already been cut significantly by the state,” said Gordon Higgins, spokesman for Hall County Schools.

The state Department of Education has said it will come up with the money for the smaller state bonuses.

“I think it’s important that we live up to our commitment,” said State Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox at a recent Board of Education meeting.

She said the certification “is likened — by people who are in the process and out of the process — to truly getting a Ph.D, a worthwhile Ph.D.”

To teachers like McCann, the cuts are troubling. She just bought a car, and her first paycheck was $400 lighter because her district instituted a 2 percent pay cut and she didn’t get the bonus money. For her, the total pay cut was 12 percent.

“I am definitely going to have to cut back and watch what I am spending,” McCann said.

After she found out she wasn’t getting the bonus, McCann contacted House Rules Chairman Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) about the cutbacks. Ehrhart is one of the most powerful lawmakers in the General Assembly, and he said the state made a pact with teachers that if they earned the certification, they’d get a 10 percent bonus.

“This is one we’re supposed to fund,” Ehrhart said. “I am going to do everything I can to make sure in the fiscal 2009 supplemental budget that the extra $5 million for the bonuses is in there.”

If the extra $5 million is added to the budget, the teachers would get the full 10 percent bonus.

To Tom Lewis, chairman of the English department at Whitewater High School in Fayette County and a longtime board-certified teacher, the issue is one of fairness.

“I do not argue that Georgia, and all states face horrendous economic problems,” Lewis said. “All teachers have already faced increases in benefits costs, years without cost-of-living raises ... cuts in other school services, etc.

“I fully expected a state salary cut, but to cut the supplement to a small group of teachers is picayune and discriminatory.”