As SB4 remains in committee, teacher merit pay debated locally

The heads of two Hidalgo County school districts have joined a group of fellow superintendents from across the state in advocating for merit pay for public school teachers, a contentious issue up for debate this legislative session.

Jose Gonzalez and Daniel King, superintendents for the McAllen and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school districts, respectively, signed onto a March 18 letter that a group of 25 other Texas superintendents sent Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to “specifically advocate for the new effective educator allotments” outlined in House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 4.

The letter was also sent to Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen and Texas House of Representatives Public Education Chairmen Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, and Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood.

Filed by Taylor on March 8, SB 4 is currently in committee and has not seen any action taken since March 11.

The initial versions of both bills included merit pay provisions for districts seeking to reward top-rated teachers with higher salaries, but that provision was struck from HB 3 during a March 19 Public Education Committee hearing. The committee had signed off during that hearing on the $9 billion school finance and property tax reform bill that would put $6.3 billion into public schools.

Local representatives of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, a union with local chapters opposed “pay linked to test results,” expressed surprise that local superintendents signed the letter.

McAllen AFT member Clarissa Riojas said she was unaware Gonzalez, who declined comment, supported merit pay.

“When I shared that information with my colleagues, a lot of them were shocked and outraged,” Riojas said.

The concern, she noted, is that teachers would be pushed to outperform rather than encourage each other to meet student needs.

“Merit pay turns teacher collaboration into competition, which ultimately comes at the expense of our students,” she added. “Teachers are already operating within circumstances that are out of their control.”

With Gonzalez’s plans not clearly known to her, Riojas believes there may also be confusion regarding the direction the district may be headed in terms of merit-based pay.

“What are the implications of him signing the letter, because I mean that was the biggest question that came to my mind at first,” she said. “What does that mean for local teachers, what does that mean for how policies are going to change within the district.

“It makes people feel uncertain about what direction the district is going in. It’s going to make teachers feel nervous; it’s going to make teachers feel like their voices are not being heard.”

According to the March 18 letter, each district “has either already begun or is prepared to discuss a district appraisal system with their board of trustees, staff and community that will incorporate multiple years of data, including principal observations, student achievement growth, student perception surveys and educator leadership.”

PSJA already offers performance pay for some teachers, with bonuses earned for teaching certain subjects on a “master level,” or another specialized qualification, according to the district website. Bilingual and special education teachers receive a $1,000 stipend, for instance.

However, Zachary Holzworth, AFT’s PSJA chapter president, opposes merit pay based on standardized testing results.

This can be problematic as some schools will focus too much on teaching to pass a test, he said.

Merit pay “doesn’t show you the quality of the teacher, it shows you which teachers are getting the students that have the fewest needs,” Holzworth said.

The phase a student is going through in life affects how they are able to cope and take exams, he said, and disparity in language ability, healthcare and financial resources all contribute to how well a student performs in a classroom. Students living in the Valley are especially affected by these issues, he said.

King said merit pay would help match other states in teacher salaries because Texas teacher salaries are lower than the national average.

The average salary for a Texas teacher during the 2017-18 school year was approximately $53,000, according to the National Education Association, which is $7,000 lower than the national average.

“I definitely want our teachers to get a very good pay raise, the state is way behind in funding our teachers,” King said, adding that base teacher pay must be raised across at the board in Texas and that the state should allocate merit pay funds and give districts control of the design and implementation of how that pay is rewarded.

Many PSJA ISD teachers advocated for increased pay, and the board supports the measure as well, King said.

McAllen ISD School Board President Daniel Vela said he was aware Gonzalez signed the letter, but said proposed merit pay lacks a definite path.

However, higher pay for teachers is long overdue, Vela said. He added that merit pay is not well-defined by legislation, believing teachers should be more involved in the process.

Monitor staff writer Molly Smith contributed to this report.