Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hicks: Where would state scores be without NBC teachers?

This week's edition of the Free Times of Columbia takes up the topic of national board certification and the stipends paid to educators who earn that credential.

It's a topic of discussion again because, just as we've seen every year for the past six or eight years, lawmakers looking for more ways to undermine and dismantle public education are trying to eliminate those stipends.

I have to give tremendous credit to the Free Times for covering the issue. The state's major newspapers, ahem, seem to have a hard time grasping and giving coverage to the matter.

To offer a little general background, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has been around since the mid-1980s, thanks to an effort begun in those days to improve educator quality. Great goal, right?

So the board created a credential -- a certificate -- that required a pretty labor-intensive process to earn. Simply applying costs a chunk of money, two or three thousand dollars or more. It's a three-year process. It requires a ton of research, writing and documentation, even a process of filming an educator's work in the classroom.

And the whole thing is peer-reviewed.

Which makes it completely worth the additional funds that South Carolina's lawmakers chose to invest back in the late 1990s -- hey, that was while Governor Jim Hodges and Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum were our leaders -- in the form of grants to cover the application costs and stipends paid to successful candidates.

Now, here we are:

State coffers may be booming thanks to a rebounding economy, but some teachers across South Carolina could lose out because of proposed cuts put forward by the House Ways and Means Committee.

Last week, the committee voted to halt the funding for at least a year of an annual supplement paid out to public K-12 educators who have successfully completed a grueling, three-year National Board Certification process.

Teachers already enrolled in the program wouldn’t see their supplements end, but new teachers who want to attempt certification would not be allowed to receive the money.

That supplement, doled out in $7,500 and $10,000 annual bumps to some of the top teachers in the state, costs $68 million a year. There’s no projection available for how much more it would cost to add newly board-certified teachers to the program.

Keeping new enrollees from benefiting from their increased credentials comes as the Ways and Means Committee voted for a budget that was nearly $1 billion higher than the last fiscal year’s budget, thanks to increased tax revenue collections.

S.C. Superintendent of Education Mick Zais and some legislators, such as House Education Committee chairman Phil Owens (R-Easley), don’t believe that it makes economic sense to continue the program. Zais’ office, supported by several legislators, contends that there is no direct correlation between the millions of dollars paid in national board supplements and student achievement increases.

In short: no bang, big bucks.

Owens said that he would like to see the $68 million redirected back into baseline student funding, so that all the teachers across the state could benefit “and not just the ones whose lives allow them to go through the [certification] process.”

Owens argued that in South Carolina’s “current economic state” it doesn’t make sense to keep spending money in this manner. He also said that South Carolina’s teacher pay is $300 higher than the Southeastern average.

Let's pause and unpack that last little nugget.

So the information being offered to the media is that the average teacher salary in South Carolina is $300 higher than the average teacher salary across all the states in the Southeast. That's impressive -- is it, really? -- until you take it apart and look at the numbers.

In South Carolina, educators who hold certain jobs and credentials get stipends -- additional amounts of money, above the base contract salary, that reflect the additional roles and responsibilities they accept. Coaches and band directors, for example, get stipends. Some student group advisors, like student newspaper advisors, also get stipends. And our national board certified teachers receive stipends.

I don't know if this is still funded, but at one time, teacher specialists -- master teachers who were hired to travel across various regions of the state, "coaching" teachers in consistently low-performing, high-priority schools -- were paid great "bonuses" equal to half of their base contract salary. (Which, I thought, brought them much closer to what educators in South Carolina should be paid.)

When calculating the "average" salary of teachers in South Carolina, our leaders pack into the formula all of those stipends and bonuses on top of the base contract salary.

What's the base contract salary? That's the dollar figure established by the state of South Carolina in its salary schedule for teachers who hold bachelor's degrees, master's degrees and doctorates, or master's degree plus so many graduate hours, etc. The salary schedule assigns dollar figures to these categories at each "step" of the salary schedule -- I think there are 22 steps -- and these "steps" are supposed to correlate to an educator's years of experience (up to the top step, and then you just stay on that step until you retire).

In an honest world, the state's average teacher salary would include only those dollars paid to teachers as base contract salary. But we don't live in an honest world; we live in South Carolina, where our lawmakers throw in everything plus the kitchen sink -- all the local salary supplements, all the stipends, all the bonuses, every jot and tittle they can pack into the bag.

Which means, friends and neighbors, that the resulting figure is waaaaay inflated beyond a real average teacher salary in our state. When anyone tells you that our average teacher salary is $300 higher than the Southeastern average, back them up and ask how South Carolina fares in that ranking when you take out all the condiments and fixin's. You might find that the sumptuous barbecue dinner they're trying to sell you is little more than a dry chicken leg and a hush puppy. Better to know that up front.

Currently, the state spends $1,880 on each student annually, despite state law requiring a number closer to $2,700. The committee’s budget plan would increase that amount to close to $2,100. The Legislature would have to vote in a special law, called a proviso, to circumvent the higher amount; it has consistently done so in recent years.

Owens, in lock step with Zais,

Well, that tells us a lot, right there...

Owens, in lock step with Zais, has argued that a better way to reward good teaching is to implement “pay for performance” raises open to all teachers.

Democrats in the House have pledged to fight the issue on the floor. And if it should get to the Senate, Owens should expect an even chillier reception.

Sen. John Courson (R-Columbia) chairs the Senate Education Committee and has already vowed to fight against dropping the annual supplement.

“We are currently number three nationally in the number of National Board certified teachers,” said Courson, who sees the supplement as an integral piece of the state’s economic future.

And thank God for that. It's nice to say we're third in the nation for some good reason, isn't it? Usually, it's some rotten ranking, like third in the nation in cardiac incidents related to pork fat.

Courson worries that if the supplement disappears, there would be an exodus of some of the state’s best-prepared teachers for greener economic pastures.

You think? North Carolina pays national board certified teachers a 12 percent differential above the bachelor's degree; it only pays a 10 percent differential above the bachelor's degree for teachers with master's degrees. If I were one of those teachers in any one of our counties bordering North Carolina, I bet I'd be keeping an eye on opportunities across the border.

Jackie B. Hicks, president of the S.C. Education Association, wonders how the Legislature paid for the supplements during the lean times of the Great Recession, but now wants to cut them.

Excellent question. We found the money when times were bad, so why cut off the stipends now, when our state is "surging"?

We are "surging," aren't we? I mean, I heard Governor Nikki Haley say we were "surging," so I figured that meant we were well on the road to recovery. Apparently, the Obama administration's economic policies are working overtime for South Carolina, so good that we're "surging." At least, that's what Haley said. "Surging."

Hicks responded tersely to sallies by Zais and Owens that there’s not been direct student improvement due to the money spent on the certification supplements with a question.

“Where would South Carolina’s scores be without them?” she asks.

Hicks, while not satisfied with the state’s standardized testing scores and national rankings, said she thought they would be lower without the teachers that have gone through the certification process. She also wonders how pay-for-performance would work for special education teachers working with some of the most seriously affected student populations, as some of those students have little realistic chance of meeting grade-level expectations.

Spoken like someone with some years of experience in South Carolina's public school classrooms.

And what a powerful final summation from the Free Times editors:

Crystal ball: Cutting National Board supplements might make some fiscal sense, but it makes no political sense. One Republican representative who supports cutting the money said he knew it was going nowhere in the current political and economic climate. That being said, observers are wondering about the future of K-12 education in the state when education is so clearly undervalued by so many state leaders.

Read that again: "when education is so clearly undervalued by so many state leaders."

Ain't that the truth.

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