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Failed Local School Reform Plan Sheds Light on Challenges

By Benjamin DeGrow

Giving the most students a chance to learn from qualified and dedicated instructors should be a priority.

Removing ineffective and ill-mannered teachers from the classroom should be a priority, too, yet the burdensome and expensive procedures associated with accomplishing the task often tie officials’ hands, trapping students in undesirable situations. On the occasions when school leaders do seek to remove a poorly-performing teacher, taxpayers much too often bear its undue costs.

The Denver Post recently reported the story of a Jefferson County elementary teacher placed on extended paid leave after numerous allegations of mistreating the students in her gifted and talented classes. If the school board determines the allegations to be true and decides to cancel the teacher’s tenured contract, the school district could end up spending a hefty sum to fight her appeals in court.

In 1995, the Jefferson County Board of Education fired Columbine High School instructor Alfred Wilder for failure to perform assigned duties, persistent tardiness, demeaning behavior, and for showing a highly controversial R-rated film to his students without either gaining permission from parents or notifying the principal. But the board spent $125,000 and three years of legal proceedings to ensure Wilder’s removal.

While many officials have relented to the burdensome procedures of state law, one small school district offered an innovative plan to surmount tenure restrictions.

In an effort to reverse the trends of low assessment scores, declining enrollment, and the loss of promising young teachers to higher-paying districts, Ignacio School District’s then-Assistant Superintendent Bruce Yoast in early 2003 introduced the Ignacio Market Driven Compensation Plan (IMDCP), adapting the basic tenets of the experimental Teacher Advancement Program (TAP).

TAP pays teachers according to a four-tiered structure of job classifications with a system of performance-based incentives, mentoring, evaluations, and teacher training. Ignacio teachers who signed on to the program, especially those who worked to excel, stood to earn considerably more than they were making on the traditional “steps and levels” salary schedule.

But the Colorado Education Association (CEA) was particularly displeased with the innovative trade-off Yoast attached to the TAP model. In order to participate in the new salary structure, teachers would have to forego their tenure protectionsthe burdensome procedures in state statutes that provide teachers virtual job security regardless of how they perform in the classroom.

Granting teachers a choice in the matter raised union officials’ hackles, enough to prompt their opposition to IMDCP and its proposed teacher salary increases.

A CEA spokeswoman defended the union’s position, stating that teachers “tend to be very trusting” and “don’t understand why” their tenure protections are so important. But CEA attorneys understand the importance of tenure protections: among their other accomplishments, they helped to wring out $125,000 in taxpayer funds by appealing the Jefferson County school board’s dismissal of Alfred Wilder through the state court system.

Regardless of CEA’s claims, many of Ignacio’s instructors understood and expressed support for IMDCP, and not just because of the promise of more money.

The “competitive nature” of the plan and its similarity to a “real-world business” model appealed to one math teacher. Another said he was willing to give up tenure protections to do something innovative for the sake of the students. A district-administered survey of Ignacio teachers showed 60 percent favoring the plan and one-third of all teachers definitely interested in participating.

The Ignacio Board of Education unanimously approved the plan; shortly thereafter, the State Board approved the district’s requested waivers of tenure protection laws. Yet, in the November 2003 election, a sizable majority of the school district’s voters refused to sanction a mill-levy increase that would have funded the program.

The union’s well-publicized and well-financed opposition to the plan, including a lawsuit filed with several prominent local citizens against the State Board for approving the waivers, helped to ensure the plan’s defeat at the ballot box.

Although rejected by local voters, Ignacio’s plan could yet guide other districts interested in improving their quality of education. Taking on the dual challenge of reforming teacher compensation and teacher tenure likely represents a daunting chore. Nevertheless, to bring out the best in Colorado’s public education system, such an approach just might be the answer.

Ben DeGrow is a research associate for the Education Policy Center and author of the Issue Paper, The Ignacio Market Driven Compensation Plan and Why It Fell Short.