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State board backs cash incentives to raise test scores

Education group still has reservations about staff bonuses

Posted: Monday, October 09, 2006

ANCHORAGE - A test program offering extra cash to school employees who squeeze higher test scores out of students has been approved by the state Board of Education.

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The Alaska School Incentives Program was signed into law by the governor in June and adopted by the Education Board this week. It sets aside $5.8 million to be distributed by September 2007 to staff at schools where children make the greatest gains on exams.

Even before one dollar has been added to paychecks, the program has drawn criticism. Opponents say teachers already work hard to help children and that offering extra money is insulting.

With tight budgets and shortfalls, others argue, the money could be better spent.

"We had very, very serious reservations about this program from the get-go," said Ron Fuhrer, president of the Anchorage Education Association. The union has been in contract negotiations for about a year, with teachers asking for better salaries and benefits.

"The general sentiment among teachers was if the state was looking to do something, it could better fund education instead of doing a merit type of thing," Fuhrer said.

The incentive program is a three-year test run. Proponents hope the lure of extra money will get school staff, from teachers to aides to janitors, working together to hone student academic skills.

Bonuses depend on each child's scores on annual state exams in reading, writing and math.

Education officials created a matrix where each student gets points for progress made on the tests between one school year and the next. All points are then averaged and the school gets a "score" that determines whether it ranks high enough to qualify as a top progress maker.

The law allows 850 cash awards for certified staff, which includes teachers, librarians, counselors, school nurses and principals, plus awards for the school's noncertified staffers such as teacher aides, secretaries and janitors.

Awards range from $2,500 to $5,500. Including the support staff was key, said Roger Sampson, Alaska education commissioner.

"We know in a lot of communities, those are the people who connect with mom and dad and really get to know those kids," Sampson said.

Carl Rose, executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards, said his group hasn't taken an official position on the program.

"But it's a pilot and it's voluntary," Rose said. "If in fact you can improve a school's performance, I think it's money well spent. If it does result in staff working together to improve the quality of a school, that would certainly be a plus."

Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau said she and other school district bosses met with Sampson to discuss the plan and agreed to support it as long as superintendents would not qualify for the bonuses.

The program was introduced to the Legislature by Gov. Murkowski. It stalled in committee until he declared it one of his must-have items and it got folded into the basic school funding bill.

Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, tried to kill the program on the Senate floor, arguing the money should go to other education endeavors such as training more teachers and reaching out to parents. He said the incentives could affect teacher morale.

The state teachers union, the National Education Association-Alaska, opposed the measure.

"Call your representative and ask them why we are spending $5.8 million on an unproven program when many proven strategies to increase student achievement are underfunded," NEA-Alaska said on its Web site. "Urge them to delete the program."

The state Education Board on Monday adopted regulations to put the program in place at least through summer 2009. The attorney general will review the regulations and forward them to the lieutenant governor for approval.



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