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Our Views: School board sides with mediocrity in trashing merit pay

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Sunday, August 13, 2017

What if Karen Schulte hadn't retired?

Would the school board have voted as it did Tuesday to scrap the district's merit-pay system if Schulte had stayed on as superintendent of Janesville schools?

No board member at Tuesday's meeting voiced support for the system, but the board backed it during Schulte's tenure.

With Steve Pophal now at the helm, the board seems content, almost eager, to abandon the concept of linking pay to performance. Board member Carla Quirk even added that she was glad the board could admit the scrapped system was wrong, casting herself and her pro-union ilk as the enlightened ones.

School Board President Kevin Murray told The Gazette he would have opposed the merit-pay system, regardless of who's superintendent. “In my opinion, it was hindering and holding back the teachers,” he said.

Maybe the outcome would have been the same under Schulte, but the board's about-face still strikes us as disingenuous. Voters would be right to conclude, based on Tuesday's actions, the board was never serious about rewarding good teachers. A more cynical analysis might conclude the board created a policy destined to fail so it could revert to the pre-Act 10 days when teachers received raises based on seniority and education level.

Under the old system, some horrible teachers could cling to their jobs and earn far more than more talented, newer teachers, but that's how the unions wanted it.

The pre-Act 10 system encouraged stagnation and needed to be ousted.

For a while, the school board seemed open to new ideas and reform, and we now realize how instrumental Schulte, who retired in July, was in selling the merit-pay concept, though she encountered unrelenting union resistance. But the board eventually diluted its merit-pay system to the point that 99 percent of teachers would get raises, defeating the purpose of having it.

Like the old system, it virtually guaranteed raises but added reams of paperwork for teachers and administrators to document the reasons for the pay adjustments.

Pophal characterized the policy as burdensome and said it discouraged innovation in the classroom. He has legitimate concerns, and we would favor any efforts to make it easier for administrators to award good teachers.

The school board would have been justified in replacing the policy with something more effective, but the board went in the opposite direction Tuesday.

The board's solution unfortunately appears to be to ditch merit pay altogether, confusing a failed policy for a bad concept. The system's fatal flaw wasn't that it was too burdensome (though it was) but that it failed in its essential mandate to separate the bad teachers from the good ones.

Of course teachers considered it a waste of time because they knew they'd get a performance raise so long as they completed the paperwork.

Teacher unions are undoubtedly pleased with Tuesday's vote, but the reality is this school board never gave merit pay a chance to work. Good teachers lost the most from Tuesday's vote. The message sent to them is that their superb efforts don't matter where it counts—the paycheck.

Pophal outlined for the board Tuesday his vision for a new system, though they seem to be old ideas repackaged and presented with modern-day jargon. Our initial impression is Pophal appears unwilling to push for the sort of reforms that could lead to a merit-pay policy based on actual merit.

If public education is to remain competitive in the age of school choice and online learning, it must do a better job of rewarding the best teachers and jettisoning the worst.

The school board shouldn't settle for mediocrity, but that's what it did Tuesday night.



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