Gov. Sam Brownback wants to see merit pay for Kansas teachers

In 2014, Gov. Sam Brownback visited Roesland Elementary School in Roeland Park. He met with kindergartners such as Wren Hillburn (right), who was cutting out a Kansas Jayhawk. At left is Aidan Dulya.
In 2014, Gov. Sam Brownback visited Roesland Elementary School in Roeland Park. He met with kindergartners such as Wren Hillburn (right), who was cutting out a Kansas Jayhawk. At left is Aidan Dulya.

Gov. Sam Brownback says he wants to reward successful teachers with higher pay when Kansas lawmakers revamp the school finance formula.

Supporters say merit pay, the idea that teachers should be compensated based on how well they do their jobs, enables schools to attract and retain the best teachers and acts as an incentive for high performance.

Union leaders say it discourages collaboration among teachers and relies on flawed rating systems.

Brownback has offered relatively few details about how merit pay would work in Kansas — whether it would rely on student test scores, principal evaluations or a combination of factors.

The Kansas Association of School Boards notes that local school boards already have the power to offer merit pay and warns that a new statewide mandate would weaken local control of schools.

The Legislature eliminated the school finance formula last year at Brownback’s urging and replaced it with flexible block grants through the spring of 2017.

Brownback said he isn’t sure lawmakers will craft a new school finance formula this year, an election year. But if they do, he wants them to consider merit pay.

The governor said his priorities are “getting more money to the classroom and giving more flexibility to the (school) administration to pay good teachers better.”

Lawmaker response

Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican and the Senate budget chairman, said he supports merit pay and also “increased pay for those hard areas to get, you know, math and sciences, and special education.”

“That’s the hard part about unionizing employment is you kind of have to raise everybody else. It’s not as hard to find, for example, a grade school teacher as it is to find a high school science teacher. I’m in favor of being able to pay those teachers more.”

Sen. Steve Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican and the Senate education chairman, called merit pay a great idea.

“I have no problem if there are teachers out there who are doing such a bang-up job that they’re worthy of six-figure incomes,” Abrams said. “If the product coming out of their classroom is worth it, I’m good with that.”

Rep. Jerry Lunn, an Overland Park Republican, said he favors recognizing and rewarding teachers who are more effective with higher pay.

“Teachers are professionals, and we need to treat them the way we treat other professionals,” he said.

Although evaluating teacher performance might not be perfect, he said, performance evaluations aren’t perfect in any business or professional field.

“That’s a part of everyday life,” Lunn said. “That’s the way the world works.”

But Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, said it would be very difficult to determine teacher effectiveness based on student tests or short classroom observations by administrators.

“I’m concerned about how you make merit pay fair,” said Baumgardner, who teaches at Johnson County Community College and was a high school teacher. “I feel that in the classroom there are so many factors goings on.”

Both Lunn and Baumgardner are members of the Legislature’s Special Committee on K-12 Student Success.

Mark Desetti, legislative director for the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said merit pay creates “a world where teachers compete with each other for those limited resources and so they don’t collaborate, they don’t cooperate with each other, because by God if I help you get better, I lose my merit pay.”

Desetti pointed to Texas, where a merit pay system was created under Gov. Rick Perry and then abandoned in 2013: “It damaged the whole school system and the legislature is the group that went in and said, ‘We were crazy. Throw it out’ and they got rid of it.”

Desetti said Brownback and other Republican leaders want to pursue merit pay “because it’s cheap. … They can keep most teachers’ pay in the toilet and pay a few teachers well and say, ‘See what we’re doing. We’re recognizing good teachers.’ 

There are no details about where the money for merit pay would come from.

How to implement

Mark Tallman, associate executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said local school boards already have the ability to propose a merit pay plan when they negotiate contracts with teachers. They also have the power to award performance bonuses.

“The state shouldn’t try to force these plans on local boards. … Our membership is open to the idea but cautious about how you’d actually implement it,” Tallman said.

One of the questions is what criteria should be used and who should make the determination, Tallman said, explaining many school board members would be hesitant to rely solely on standardized test scores.

Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, said principals should determine which teachers will receive merit pay.

“The principal’s going to know best,” he said.

Trabert recommended that the state eliminate pay systems based on seniority.

“In a perfect world, I’d like to see the pay for seniority go away,” Trabert said. “That could be the way that the state gets involved in it and says we’re not going to pay for seniority. You pay for performance.”

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said giving principals the power to decide pay would make it so “the teachers who do the most brown-nosing will get the most money. You know, as long as you don’t make any waves or cause any problems, we’re going to take care of you.”

“I don’t think it works,” he added.

Conflicting study results

Studies on the impact of merit pay have had conflicting results.

A three-year study by Vanderbilt University, published in 2010, found that students with teachers who were eligible for merit pay bonuses did not outperform students taught by teachers in a control group who were ineligible for such bonuses.

However, a 2012 study conducted by researchers from Harvard University and the University of Chicago found that students’ test scores did improve when teachers were given an $80 reward for each percentile students improved on a standardized test, with a maximum bonus of $8,000.

Rep. Ron Highland, a Wamego Republican and House education chairman, has previously voiced support for merit pay but in a recent interview was cautious about requiring it of school districts.

“This gets into the area of local control, and that’s something that I have to be real careful about,” Highland said. “Yes, I have made statements that I think our best teachers should be paid more, and I still believe that. But because the way the constitution and the laws are written, that is up to the local school board and the superintendent.”

Highland said that state policymakers can encourage school districts to adopt merit pay, but that the decision is up to local officials.

“The school board meetings I attend, they are vehemently against it. … They don’t think you can do that fairly,” Highland added. “But if anyone has ever been in business or wherever, your production matters.”

Abrams said the state should endorse merit pay but allow local school districts to set their own criteria.

“That would have to be a local determination. I don’t want the state involved in saying this teacher is definitely the best,” Abrams said.

Some opposed to the idea make a series of arguments against it: A teacher is not the only influence on student achievement, and when teachers are rewarded based on student achievement, they would be less likely to want to teach those students who live in challenging communities and have a hard time succeeding.

Then there are those who believe proposing merit pay is just a way to distract from what is really wrong with education in Kansas.

“There is a playbook for how to destroy public education, and proposing merit pay is in it,” said David Smith, spokesman for Kansas City, Kan., Public Schools.

“This makes it appear that if we can give incentives for teachers to perform better, it would fix the problems with education in Kansas. What’s wrong is that we need better teacher pay and more respect for teachers, and merit pay doesn’t support that,” Smith said.

Merit pay and better teacher pay are not the same thing, said Smith, who seemed annoyed by the idea of merit pay over raises.

“We can’t even give teachers cost of living raises — they haven’t seen cost of living raises in about two years — and they are talking about money for merit pay,” Smith said. “The implication is that there is a problem with our teachers, and that is not where the challenges are. We are not funding education adequately. We have amazing teachers who work incredibly hard, under difficult situations. They deserve support needed to be effective.”

The Star’s Mará Rose Williams and Edward M. Eveld contributed to this report.

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3