IP-3-2005 (March 2005)
Author: Ben DeGrow
Colorado local school boards, unlike those in many states, determine their districts’ salary schedules. Most school districts pay teachers strictly according to the number of years served and the amount of postgraduate educational credit and degrees attained. Notable exceptions include Douglas County R-1, which has operated a performance pay system for teachers since 1994, and Denver Public Schools, which awaits a November 2005 vote on a mill-levy increase to approve funding for its “ProComp” plan. But the Ignacio School District 11JT in southwestern Colorado went a step further when it unveiled a unique and innovative teacher compensation proposal in February 2003.
Devised by now-former Assistant Superintendent Bruce Yoast, the Ignacio Market Driven Compensation Plan (IMDCP) proposed a new performance-based salary track for teachers in the district who decided to opt in. The plan offered educators a trade-off. For their part, teachers would agree to give up special protections enshrined in statute—guidelines for contract renewal and judicial review—that helped to guarantee their continuing right to employment (or tenure). In return, the school district would promote these teachers to a higher salary track.
Teachers who opted into the new track would take part in a new system of evaluations based on their developing knowledge and skill, their students’ classroom performance, and district expectations for professional conduct and activity. While teachers who opted into IMDCP would be aided comprehensively by mentoring from colleagues, those who failed to meet yearly performance standards would be subject to losing their jobs. Teachers removed by the school board would be protected from potentially unfair treatment by recourse to an appeals process within the district.
Yoast saw the increased authority to reward successful teachers and to remove poorlyperforming teachers as powerful tools to improve struggling student performance. The costs to a district associated with the effort to remove an ineffective educator can be staggeringly high. Administrators quite often choose to transfer a poorly-performing teacher to another school or simply to tolerate the situation. Because state laws protecting teacher tenure place too heavy a burden on school districts, students suffer.
Ignacio’s district leaders asked the Colorado State Board of Education to waive the job protection laws. Yoast and others believed that the district needed more flexibility to remove ineffective teachers in order to persuade a fiscally conservative electorate to finance IMDCP’s pay raises through a mill-levy override. According to the district’s leaders, most local residents perceived public educators as having a virtually guaranteed job. In July 2003 the State Board voted to allow the district to override the statutory procedures for dismissing a teacher.
The Colorado Education Association (CEA), the state’s largest teachers’ union, formed the primary opposition to the IMDCP. Despite efforts to reconcile differences, an impasse was reached on the issue of preserving or waiving the statutory process that protects teacher tenure. CEA, its local Ignacio Education Association (IEA), and several citizens filed suit against the school district and the State Board in August 2003. Ignacio voters in the November 2003 election passed up the opportunity to reward effective teachers and protect its students from ineffective teachers, rejecting IMDCP by a two-to-one margin. The following January, the parties in the lawsuit agreed to an outside settlement that nullified the waivers granted by the State Board.
Policy makers at the federal and state levels have demanded increased accountability for student performance. School district administrators are accountable to the school board and the board to local voters, yet administrators do not have enough latitude to hold teachers accountable for how well they do their jobs. Colorado legislators removed the word tenure from the statutes in 1990 but left in place both a teacher’s essential right to continuing employment and the extensive dismissal procedures that virtually ensure that right. As long as current teacher dismissal procedures remain, making the removal of poorly-performing teachers extremely difficult and costly, the chain of accountability is incomplete.
While IMDCP did not come to fruition, some of the officials who supported and promoted it believe the issue is ripe to return to the ballot some day—either in Ignacio or elsewhere in the state. The General Assembly should promote the hopeful reform at the heart of Ignacio’s plan by restructuring the statutory process protecting tenure, giving school district boards more flexibility to remove ineffective teachers.