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Texas teachers lose merit pay, but gain competitive grant

Teachers unions have supported elimination of the merit program

Texas’ teacher merit pay system, once the largest in the nation with early successful results, was eliminated in a summer legislative session due to massive cuts to the state’s education budget. The small amount of funding that remains has been converted into a competitive grant for improving instruction in low-income districts.

At its peak in the state’s 2010-2011 budget, the program known as the District Awards for Teacher Excellence, had $392 million. About 180,000 teachers, representing nearly half in the state, received merit pay for higher test scores and student achievement. Nearly 300 districts participated in the program.

A 2011 budget crisis drastically reduced all public education funds, leaving only $24 million for the program this year. Over the summer, Texas Gov. Rick Perry—who led the state in implementing the bonuses—signed a law to refocus the funding. Teachers received their last bonus checks this fall. “We didn’t do away with the program because it had not been successful—it was purely because of financial reasons,” says Debbie Ratcliffe, spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency, which oversaw the bonuses.

A study of the program’s first cycle, from 2008-2010, found that students in schools where teachers received bonuses had greater achievement gains than students in other schools. Districts participating in the program also saw greater declines in teacher turnover, according to the study, which the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University conducted.

“I think most Texas teachers, like those anywhere, go into the classroom trying to do their best,” Ratcliffe says. “The program was a nice pat on the back but didn’t exist long enough to determine if it really changed teachers’ behaviors.”

Teachers unions are glad to see the merit pay system go, and representatives say they would prefer the money to be spread out among all teachers in the state. “Right now, Texas teachers are paid about $8,000 below the national average for teacher salaries, so giving everyone a pay raise would be better,” says Angela Davis, president of the Dallas NEA.

The grant program created with the remaining $24 million is called the Educator Excellence Innovation Program, and funds will be awarded on a competitive basis to improve teaching in schools with a high percentage of low-income students. It is still being developed, but will likely include a mentoring system for new or struggling teachers. More experienced educators will become “master” teachers in their subject area and offer guidance to other teachers.

Administrators from schools where at least half the students are low-income can apply. Up to 40 districts will be awarded the grants for the 2014-2015 school year.

“Our legislature has tried to help foster innovation over the last decade or so,” Ratcliffe says. “With the revamping of this program, lawmakers are hoping some really creative ideas will spring up from the grassroots that will improve schools over time.”