/Legislature funds teacher bonus program, but questions remain about accountability and fairness

Legislature funds teacher bonus program, but questions remain about accountability and fairness

Mississippi News, a non-profit news organization, funded this week a controversial program to raise merit teacher salaries. However, there was no accountability for how the money was spent. The School Recognition Program provides pay increases to teachers who teach in high-performing schools. In the last three fiscal years, the state has given out $71 million in this program. Mississippi Today’s analysis of the program revealed inconsistencies in the distribution of funds. Some teachers received more than $1,000, while others were given less than $50. In the disbursement of funds, school districts are not subject to scrutiny by state leaders. A lack of accountability at the state level is so severe that a staffer for the legislative budget asked a Mississippi Today reporter to provide her database showing how the money was spent by the school districts. This happened just days before legislators met to discuss funding the program for the next fiscal year. The program was created by the Legislature in 2014. It rewards teachers who earn a higher letter grade or maintain an A- or B rating in their school districts. While the merit pay program promotes performance, critics claim it is confusing and can actually lower educators’ morale. Questions remain about the distribution of the money to teachers, and whether it is racially balanced. Gov. Tate Reeves considers the program a landmark of his public education achievements. He vetoed parts of the $2.5B education budget this fiscal year because it didn’t include funding for the program. Reeves said that he delayed the budget to ensure teachers did not lose their well-earned raises. Reeves stated that many teachers will be subject to pay cuts of up to a few thousand dollars. However, a Mississippi Today analysis reveals wide-ranging inconsistencies in the way that school districts allocate funds for the program. The Mississippi Department of Education has not provided any guidance on how school districts distribute the funds. This means that teachers’ salaries can vary greatly at each school. The first two years of this program saw districts create teacher committees that could decide how and to whom to distribute the funds. Last year, however, the MDE issued guidance stating that only current and certified employees of eligible schools should be granted the money and that awards must be evenly distributed. Our analysis revealed that not all school districts followed the guidance. This means there is no set standard as to how districts should distribute bonuses. Only 60% of schools disbursed the money evenly to teachers last year. 36% didn’t. The information submitted by less than 4% of the districts was not complete, so it is unclear how the money was distributed. According to district responses, 32 teachers and staff received $871.34 each at Kossuth middle school in Alcorn County. Five teachers received $108.92 each. Teachers and staff at Southaven Elementary School, DeSoto County, received a wide variety of amounts. 40 teachers received $1023.89 per, while the rest received less than $750. One person was awarded $18. Terry High School, Hinds County, had 79 teachers and staff who each received $938.84, while nine others received $81.46. George County High School had 87 teachers and staff who each received $1118.41, while one person received $223.64. The data for the first two years is not available because not all districts provided the correct information to the state. The program was funded again by lawmakers this week, despite inconsistencies in bonuses and missing data. On Monday, they overrode Reeves’ veto of education budget and passed a separate proposal for funding the School Recognition Program at $28 million. It was not clear for years how many Mississippi teachers were given money through the program. While the Department of Education keeps records of the amounts given to each school or district, it doesn’t keep records of how the money was distributed at schools. The department provided Mississippi Today individual response forms for each district through several public records requests. These response forms are usually handwritten and cannot be stored in a spreadsheet. Mississippi Today gathered this information and created a spreadsheet showing how many teachers were paid through the program. Our analysis revealed that the program received $25 million in collective funding for fiscal 2020 from nearly 21,000 teachers and staff working in over 500 schools. A legislative budget analyst reached Mississippi Today on Aug. 7, the Friday prior to the Legislature returning to the Capitol to discuss funding for this program, to obtain “detailed information” for FY20. This included data about the number of teachers and staff who received salary supplements at both the district- and state levels. It would be great to have a spreadsheet that summarizes this information.” A staffer stated that the Mississippi Department of Education was unable to provide such information. The staffer sent an email to inform that he had contacted the Department of Education. They said that they didn’t have information on the state’s teachers and staff who receive salary supplements. “They claimed that the information was only available at the district-level.” Mississippi Today provided this information to the Legislative Budget Office on Friday afternoon. On Monday, Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach House Education Chairman, was asked why lawmakers hadn’t had that information previously. Bennett said that this was the first time he’d heard about lawmakers not having the numbers needed for the program. Bennett stated, “We have those numbers.” “This is the first thing I’ve ever heard. We have the numbers and they came from LBO. MDE should also have these exact teachers. But I don’t know what it is all about. Since state testing was canceled this spring due to coronavirus school closings, there won’t be standardized test scores to create accountability ratings or base the School Recognition Program for the next fiscal. Some lawmakers expressed hope that more time will be spent examining the program’s fairness, accountability, and transparency. David Blount (D-Jackson), vice chair of Senate Education Committee, stated that the program “takes money from (the school financing formula), which is fair and objective for all schools in the state, and redirects it towards a few schools based upon standardized test scores.” It provides teachers with a financial incentive to move to wealthier areas from underserved schools. Blount stated that it is a bad policy. He’s heard of teachers who were at the school when the school achieved the letter grade required to be eligible for bonuses, but they didn’t receive them because they had left the school two years later. It is not required by law to pay teachers who have left the school district. He also mentioned instances where new teachers were given bonuses even though they weren’t working at the school when it achieved the score that made them eligible for the bonuses. Monday’s bill was passed by the Legislature. It will finance the program again with $28 million taken from a capital project fund. This fund will provide merit pay increases for approximately 23,000 teachers in fiscal 2021. To support this important work, you can make a regular donation to our Spring Member Drive today. Our reporters give a human face to policy’s impact on everyday Mississippians by listening more closely and understanding their communities. 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