Top-flight teachers feel betrayed by cuts

The state broke faith with thousands of its best teachers in 2009 and 2010, cutting their pay by 10 percent and ensuring that many of Georgia’s most accomplished educators were also the hardest-hit by the Great Recession.

Now, even as the state plans to spend a half-billion dollars more on education in 2014, this special cadre of teachers will still finish out of the money.

The teachers are those who spent hundreds of hours and often thousands of dollars attaining national board certification, in return for which the state awarded them a 10 percent pay supplement — and then revoked it when the economy went bad.

“They took our supplement and gave us furlough days,” said Christine Lauer, a Cherokee County high school science teacher. “They took the people who had gone the furthest, who had gone the extra mile, and said, ‘We’re going to hurt you for bettering yourself.’ ”

When Gov. Nathan Deal recently announced plans to boost school spending $547 million next year, Georgia’s more than 2,000 national board-certified teachers found that none of the extra money would go toward restoring their supplement. Some lawmakers had promised the extra pay would come back when times were better. But now they say times aren’t yet good enough.

Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, a House budget subcommittee chairman, was among those who said in 2010 that he wanted to bring back the supplements. But he understands why Deal didn’t include them in his budget proposal this year.

“I haven’t changed my position on national board certification,” he said. “It was a promise we made and I still think we ought to continue to try to find a way to fund it.”

But he added, “All the changes to the education budget the governor is proposing are helping all teachers. In these budget times, it would be very difficult for us to single them out for extra largess.”

Teachers lose an average of $6,000 a year

A teacher needn’t achieve board certification to be effective in the classroom. But some studies, including one in Gwinnett County schools, have shown that those who hold that certificate are, on balance, better teachers than those who don’t. North Carolina, for example, is aggressively promoting board certification for its teachers, and 20,000 teachers there — nine times more than in Georgia — have obtained the certificate and the extra pay that comes with it.

In Georgia, board-certified teachers have lost an average of $6,000 a year, on top of the furloughs. But they say they’ve gained a better understanding of what the state’s promise is worth.

As a consequence, the number of educators signing up to work toward certification has plummeted since state leaders began talking about cutting the supplements in the late 2000s. Last year, just one Georgia teacher earned national board certification.

“Georgia’s national board certified teachers are rewarded by being slighted and forgotten. It breaks my heart,” said Heavenly Montgomery, a board certified teacher who is now a Title I Data Support Specialist in Fulton County schools. “If mediocrity in the teaching profession is to be addressed, excellence must be appreciated.”

Georgia teachers began applying to earn the national certification in the early 1990s, but the number exploded when then-Gov. Roy Barnes and other state leaders began pushing for big salary supplements. Barnes and lawmakers put the 10 percent supplement into law in 2000.

The veteran teachers spend hundreds of hours putting together portfolios of classroom work, recording classroom lectures and passing national assessments to earn the certification.

The process can cost thousands of dollars and the certificates are good for 10 years. Leading lawmakers called them some of the state’s top teachers, and educators said they were promised the salary supplements for the life of their certificate.

Aparna Kumar, a spokeswoman for the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, said nearly three- fourths of all states provide some kind of support for board certification, ranging from financial incentives to automatically renewing state licenses for certified teachers.

‘Significantly more effective’ teachers

A study conducted in 2012 in Gwinnett schools, the state’s largest district, found that teachers who are national board certified outperformed peers with the same level of experience in elementary math and English/Language Arts. The study was conducted by researchers at Harvard University.

Other studies have noted its positive impact. For instance, a study by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in 2010 found board-certified teachers were “significantly more effective” than their non-board-certified colleagues in teaching Algebra II, biology, civics and economics, chemistry and geometry based on student performance on end-of-course tests. Studies in 2004 and 2007 also showed board-certified teachers having greater impact on minority and low-income students.

“The national board process prepared me for new evaluation systems by forcing me to follow research-based practices, not only in theory, but in application,” Montgomery said. “In order to certify you have to show evidence in writing and video- taped lessons of the teacher actually applying best practices.”

She said those who go through the board certification process have to meet more rigorous standards than those in the state’s new teacher evaluation system.

Karen Garr, who served as a teacher adviser to North Carolina Gov. James Hunt when he was promoting the program in the 1990s, said her state made it a priority to improve teaching and approved a series of incentives, including 12 percent salary supplements. Today North Carolina has more than 20,000 board-certified teachers, including more than 180 who became principals.

“I think if the public understood what the program was, they would be very supportive,” said Garr, who now works for the national board. “Most parents probably take their children to board-certified doctors, because they don’t think the surgeon who says ‘I’m not board certified’ is as good a doctor as the one with the board credential.

“We are working to create this goal from the time teachers start preparing for teaching, and we’re transforming our profession. It is a program that recognizes teachers for meeting the highest standards of their profession.”

‘I don’t believe they really care’

In Georgia, some teachers and education officials say Gov. Sonny Perdue started trying to cut the supplements once he won office because they were a pet project of his predecessor, Barnes. Perdue officials strongly denied the accusation, saying the governor wanted to reward teachers based on the performance of students rather than for getting advanced degrees or certificates. By the start of Perdue’s second term in 2007, the number of teachers seeking certification was dwindling.

Once the recession hit, Perdue and lawmakers began cutting the supplements. The last $7.2 million left for supplements was wiped out in the budget that passed on the final day of the 2010 session.

Since the start of the recession, lawmakers have cut billions of dollars from schools. Teaching jobs have been cut, many veteran educators have gone without raises, and tens of thousands have had to take days off without pay.

That made it relatively easy for lawmakers to justify not reinstating the supplements.

But this year, with the economy improving and tax collections increasing, Deal, who is seeking a second term in 2014, called for a massive infusion of money into schools. He said the spending spike should eliminate furloughs, allow schools to increase school days and give teachers pay raises.

The state Department of Education did not recommend bringing back the supplements, and that money wasn’t included in Deal’s proposed budget.

Tim Mullen, a life science teacher at Bay Creek Middle School in Grayson, and his wife are both board-certified. The couple, who has three daughters just out of college, lost $12,000 a year when state officials eliminated the supplement. He said they had to take out extra loans to send their daughters to college because of the loss of supplements.

Mullen also said he hasn’t had a pay raise since 2008, while the cost of health insurance has gone up every year.

“Our financial situation is going backwards,” he said.

Lauer, the Cherokee County science teacher, has had to raise three children alone on her salary and fears losing her home.

“It really hurt when they took that money,” she said. “I don’t believe they really care about education. Ultimately, it’s students who suffer by missing out on the opportunity to learn under accomplished, highly effective teachers.”

Email James Salzer or Nancy Badertscher