A proposed $5,500 bonus paycheck for improving student academic performance could come in handy for teachers, Juneau Education Association President Carol Shurson said.
"I think it would be probably six months or more of rent," the union leader and Juneau-Douglas High School teacher said of the Murkowski administration's bonus offer. "That's a lot of groceries."
But whether it is worth accepting depends on where the money comes from and at what other costs to the educators, Shurson said.
"It depends what you have to do to get it," she said. "If putting in 500 more hours of work, then no."
Education Commissioner Roger Sampson presented the proposed Alaska School Performance Incentive Program to the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday, proposing bonuses ranging from $1,000 to $5,500 for each public school staff member who significantly improves student performance.
"It would be available for every school - not just some schools, not just large, not small, not just rural, not urban - it would be available for any school that hits the target," Sampson said. "So it's not like grading on a curve. It's grading on a standard."
Using a proven private-sector practice, the administration has developed a model that would monitor each student's academic progress to see that every Alaska child is improving in school, regardless of where they began the year academically, Sampson told the committee. Gov. Frank Murkowski is expected to propose the program in bills before the Senate and House this session.
Students would be placed in one of six categories that have been developed - from "far below proficient-minus" to "advanced" - depending on the results of standards-based assessments. At the end of each year the students' scores would be compared to the previous year's results, leading to bonuses for each school administrator, teacher and support staff member if the average of all the test scores indicates more than a year's academic growth. Janitors, school counselors and secretaries would be eligible for bonuses under the proposal. Schools that met or fell short of a year's academic growth would not receive bonuses.
Sampson said the program would help create environments in schools across the state that spread the responsibility of student achievement across the entire staff and would result in lower dropout rates and higher graduation rates.
"As Alaskans, we expect every student to grow and achieve," Sampson said. "Whether they are the lowest-performing student or the highest-performing student, we expect growth from our kids. We don't want them to be stagnant."
Sampson said the program would succeed where the federal No Child Left Behind Act has failed, by helping the students who have reached proficiency levels to push for higher academic achievement levels. He said the program is about accountability for students and education professionals.
"It clearly is about accountability and there is an incentive there to help each child move wherever they are performing to a higher level of performance," Sampson said. "And those that are performing high, to keep them performing high."
National Education Association-Alaska President Bill Bjork said his support of the program largely depends on where the money comes from. Murkowski said in his State of the State address Tuesday that he will ask for an additional $90 million in education funding. It was suggested in the Senate Finance Committee that money for the new program come out of the $90 million, which Bjork said is hardly enough of an increase in basic school funding as it is.
"It just absolutely can't come out of straight-up K-through-12 funding," Bjork said.
With the high budget surplus in the hands of the legislators, Bjork said it is a historic opportunity for the Legislature to fund education. He said the money that could go toward the incentive program might be better spent by the local school districts.
"That's a community-by-community decision and we think that ought to be made out in the communities," Bjork said.
Sampson said the new program would help bolster student achievement, as well as attracting new educators to handle the teacher shortage in the state.
Bjork said the teachers are most worried about dependable salaries and competitive retirement programs. He said dangling a bonus in front of educators might not be the best way to improve student achievement.
"We know things that increase student achievement. It's lower class sizes, it's after-school tutoring and a variety of other programs, but these cost money."
The administration could not say how much the incentive program would cost each year, but its model suggests if 25 percent of employees of schools met the highest level of bonuses it would cost the state about $15.4 million.
Sampson said the program is groundbreaking.
"This is an incentive that encourages people to work differently than they have worked," he said. "To work with innovation."