Teacher bonus inequity shouldn’t be a surprise

State legislators suggest they’re shocked – shocked! – to learn the $40 million Teacher Performant Grant program they created is mostly rewarding teachers who work in wealthy school districts.

“The original concept was to recognize outstanding teachers, not just outstanding districts,” House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, told the Indianapolis Star. “When we drafted it we didn’t think the gap would be as large,” Sen. Ryan Mishler, R- Bremen, who helped create the program, told WFYI News.

Really? Because it was entirely predictable that this would happen.

Gov. Mike Pence proposed the program, and legislators approved the formula that spells out how the grants are distributed. The primary way that schools qualify for the grants is if at least 75 percent of their students pass the state’s ISTEP exams. If at least 90 percent of students pass, they get larger grants. If schools qualify, they get money for each student who passes a test.

We’ve known for a long time that passing rates on standardized tests are much higher in affluent schools than in schools that serve lots of poor students. For high-poverty Indiana schools, a 75 percent passing rate is something to dream about – especially since ISTEP got a lot tougher in 2014-15.

Schools can also qualify on the basis of graduation rates or year-to-year improvement in ISTEP passing rates. Using improvement is supposed to help equalize funding, but it doesn’t have much effect.

The grants go to school districts – not directly to the schools – to be divvied up among the district’s teachers who are rated effective or highly effective. Most teachers fall in those categories.

The results, released last week, are what you’d expect. The biggest awards go to suburban districts where there are few low-income families. In Carmel Clay Schools, one of the lowest-poverty areas in the nation, the average award is estimated to be $2,422 per teacher. In Zionsville Schools, it’s $2,240. In Munster, $2,157. Other districts near the top include Hamilton Southeastern, Penn-Harris-Madison and West Lafayette, all low-poverty districts.

At the other end of the scale, teachers in Indianapolis Public Schools will get an average of $128.40 In Indianapolis Wayne Township, they will get $42.50 In Kokomo, $39.79. In East Chicago, zero.

To say this is unfair doesn’t begin to describe it. No one can argue with a straight face that teachers employed in wealthy districts deserve huge bonuses but teachers who dedicate their lives to helping poor children should get a slap in the face. Yet that’s the program the legislature gave us.

The formula is also unfair to teachers in charter schools, most of which miss out on the funding altogether. That’s primarily because each charter school is its own school district. They don’t benefit from being part of a larger school corporation in which one or more schools bring in grants.

The 2013 state budget bill established the program, and the first grants, totaling $30 million, were awarded in December 2014, with Gov. Mike Pence boasting of the awards in a press release. But the program got little media attention, and it doesn’t seem that anyone picked up on the lack of equity.

I wrote about the program earlier this year after requesting the second year of allocations from the Indiana Department of Education. I had to guess at the per-teacher averages, and it appears the gap between rich and poor was even wider than I estimated.

This year, the Department of Education posted district allocations and per-teacher averages to its website. Reporters were notified, and WFYI/Indiana Public Media, the Indianapolis Star, WTTV/WXIN and WRTV have done stories pointing out the unfairness of how the bonuses are distributed.

Jennifer McCormick, the superintendent-elect of public instruction, tweeted last week that she was “well aware of the frustration” surrounding the program and committed to improving it.

The Indiana State Teachers Association has also taken up the issue. “We need high-quality educators to teach at our most challenged schools,” ISTA President Teresa Meredith said in a statement, “and this distribution of bonuses certainly won’t compel them to do so.”

Some legislators say they will try to improve the formula in the 2017 session, which starts next month. But here’s the problem: Boosting bonuses for teachers in high-poverty school districts will require either increasing overall funding or taking money away from wealthy districts, many of which are represented by influential Republican lawmakers. It won’t be an easy fix.

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