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Money Flows into Teacher Bonus Program

What a coincidence! A few days before the election, the Administration hands out money to teachers.

by Ben Feller

In the closing weeks of the fall campaign, the Bush administration is
handing out money for teachers who raise student test scores, the first
federal effort to reward classroom performance with bonuses.

The 16 grants total $42 million and cover many states. The government
has announced only the first grants, $5.5 million for Ohio, where
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings was making the presentation Monday.

The department will release the remaining grants in the coming weeks,
falling right before the Nov. 7 elections in which a reeling Republican
Party is eager for good news.

In Ohio in particular, the GOP could trumpet the news of money for the
state education department. The $5.5 million will be shared by schools
in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus and Toledo.

Sen. Mike DeWine (news, bio, voting record), R-Ohio, is trailing his
Democratic rival. Also, Democrats have led for weeks in two House seats
long in Republican hands, and party officials talk of capturing two or
three more seats. Such gains could help the Democrats take over the House.

The Education Department says the election had no bearing on the timing.
The grant application process began in May, and the review was done in
the early fall, officials said. Congress approved the program last year.

"It's always a little suspicious when you have these things come out
just before the election, allowing members of Congress in tight races to
get some money for their district," said Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the
National Education Association.

Using the old-fashioned incentive of cash, President Bush's program
encourages schools to set up pay scales that reward some teachers and
principals more than others. Those rewards are to be based mainly on
test scores, but also on classroom evaluations during the year.

The grants are also aimed at luring teachers into math, science and
other core fields.

Teachers normally are paid based on their years in class and their
education. Yet more school districts are experimenting with merit pay,
and now the federal government is, too.

It is not always popular. Teachers' unions generally oppose
pay-for-performance plans, saying they do not fairly measure quality and
do nothing to raise base teacher pay.

Spellings, though, says the money will be a good recruiting tool. The
most qualified teachers tend to opt for affluent schools, she told The
Associated Press.

"These grants will work to fix this by encouraging and rewarding
teachers for taking the tough jobs in the schools and classrooms where
our children need them the most," she said.

The grants will range from about $1 million to $30 million. That is
small time for the federal government, but can be enough to offer a
meaningful pay bump at the local level.

Yet done in isolation, performance pay "have very little chance of
having impact," said Rob Weil, deputy director of educational issues for
the American Federation of Teachers.

"You have to prepare teachers properly," Weil said. "You have to have
mentoring and professional development and professional standards. If
you don't have those things, it doesn't matter what you do with

The average teacher salary was paid $47,800 in 2005.

Bush has been promoting the "Teacher Incentive Fund" in his recent

"It's an interesting concept, isn't it?" he said during a school visit
in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 5. "If your measurement system shows that
you're providing excellence for your children, it seems to make sense
that there ought to be a little extra incentive."

In the Ohio districts, for example, school leaders plan to pay bonuses
of between $1,800 to $2,000 to hundreds of teachers and principals who
raise achievement.

Bush, seeking $500 million from Congress, got $99 million for the
program this year.

More than half of that money will be carried over until next year,
though, because most of the applications did not qualify. The department
expects to accept applications again soon.

The agency looked for pay plans that outline how schools will get
support from teachers and the broader community. That is considered
essential to keeping any merit plan afloat.

Schools with higher numbers of poor children get priority consideration.

Packer, the lobbyist for the National Education Association, said no
teacher-pay plan should be based just on the test scores of students. A
one-time exam does not measure teacher effectiveness, he said, and
teachers in subjects such as math may not even have testing.

Teacher Incentive Fund:


— Ben Feller
Associated Press


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