SID SALTER: Bryant's merit pay plan has a long political pedigree

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – During his “State of the State” address, Gov. Phil Bryant unveiled a merit pay plan for teachers, saying he would “recommend a ‘Pay for Performance’ program for our teachers based on student attainments and not on subjective evaluations. It is time we started paying for quality, not longevity.”
Merit pay is performance-related pay for teachers based on outcomes or based on the performance of their students – usually in the realm of standardized tests. Teachers and teacher unions have resisted merit pay both nationally and in Mississippi based on claims that there is little evidence that the incentives improve performance beyond “teaching to the test,” that administering such programs is expensive, and that such programs produce low teacher morale
While the topic is as politically sensitive as ever among the state’s teacher unions and for individual educators as well, the concept is gaining momentum in the political arena from the top down. The U.S. government has long been in the performance pay experiment. The feds provided significant funding for school systems to pilot programs that offered incentive pay for teachers. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education reported that 62 school districts and nonprofit groups received $442 million in funding from the federal Teacher Incentive Fund.
State governments have also been in the performance or merit pay mix, along with individual school districts. In the past, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, North Carolina and Texas have utilized varied performance pay programs either as pilot or regular programs in their public schools. Within the last year, Kentucky, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Maine and Nevada state governments have debated similar plans.
That Bryant would embrace merit pay for teachers is not surprising. When Bryant was a freshman state representative from Rankin County in 1996, the Democratic leadership in state government – House Speaker Tim Ford, Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and House Appropriations Committee chairman Rep. Charlie Capps – had an ambitious $52 million teacher pay hike plan on the agenda as the 1997 session took shape.
One of the mightiest voices opposing that plan was then-Gov. Kirk Fordice. Fordice was a proponent of merit pay for teachers, writing in a 1997 veto message: “Philosophically, I do not believe that spending more money on public education will automatically result in higher student test scores. Even the most ardent promoters of increased education funding must admit that a district’s funding level is only one factor that influences the success of its students.”
Fordice was Phil Bryant’s Republican political godfather. The merit pay concept is one that’s been a favorite of legislative conservatives for more than 20 years in Mississippi politics. Now, Republicans control both houses of the Legislature and the Governor’s Mansion. Bryant’s proposed education reforms line up with reforms proposed by other GOP governors across the country.
During the administration of former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, the Legislature passed a six-year phased, $336 million comprehensive teacher pay hike. The Legislature loosely linked performance of the school districts to that pay hike bill.
Back when Bryant was a freshman state legislator in the minority in the House, merit pay was little more than a throwaway line in Kirk Fordice’s veto messages – vetoes that were routinely and almost summarily overridden. But the legislative numbers, an ailing state budget and public sentiment finely attuned to accountability make merit pay an issue that may well get traction during the 2012 session.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.