Teachers Union Prepares Ballot Campaign Against Ohio Merit Pay Law

Published May 15, 2011

Ohio has become one of the first states to adopt statewide teacher pay-for-performance. But backers of the reform now say they worry unions objecting to a new law’s provisions eliminating most collective bargaining privileges for public employees could scuttle the merit pay plan before it starts.

Gov. John Kasich (R) signed into law SB 5, which increases the importance of student test scores in determining Ohio teachers’ evaluations, compensation, tenure acquisition, and job retention.

“It’s a significant overhaul of [education] personnel matters,” said Terry Ryan, vice president for Ohio programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Union Seeks Repeal
Ohio’s teacher tenure reforms were overshadowed by elements of SB 5 that restricted collective bargaining privileges for government employees. Organized labor groups have launched a campaign to repeal the legislation in the November election.

“I wish in hindsight that the state had tackled teacher performance issues separately,” Ryan said.

The dynamics of the November ballot raise serious concerns for reformers, Ryan says. A well-funded labor campaign tapping into the anxieties of the state’s 700,000 government employees affected by the bargaining reforms could galvanize the repeal campaign.

“If the majority of Ohioans vote against [SB 5], then it’s all killed off. That’s a scary sort of thing,” Ryan said. “I think these reforms are really important on the education side. It would be hard to rebirth these ideas.”

‘A Lot Up in the Air’
As winner of $400 million in federal Race to the Top funds, the Ohio Department of Education garnered assurances from about half the state’s school districts that they would implement performance systems. Following the lead of Colorado’s landmark Senate Bill 191 in 2010, Ohio’s SB 5 requires at least half of teacher performance to be measured by student learning growth data.

Ryan notes the only statewide information available to measure student-learning gains is math and reading tests for fourth- and eighth-graders. The design and use of assessments to evaluate teachers of other students are among the details officials will work out when designing Ohio’s new performance-based system.

“There is a lot up in the air right now,” he said.

Higher Bar for Tenure
SB 5 incorporates student learning gains as part of a higher bar for Ohio teachers to earn tenure protections after seven years, while eliminating seniority as a factor in deciding which teachers will be laid off during budget reductions. The reforms also require all Ohio public school teachers be paid based on the measures of performance used in the evaluations.

“It is human nature for us to respond to incentives, but right now we do little to incentivize educators to continually improve teaching methods or leadership skills,” said Kasich spokeswoman Connie Wehrkamp. “By encouraging our teachers and principals and rewarding them for good work, we believe strongly that this will improve student learning.”

Matthew Springer, director of the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University, lauded Ohio for scrapping the existing teacher salary schedule rather than merely trying to tack bonuses atop existing awards for longevity and academic credentials.

“The way we pay teachers based on seniority and education degrees is an incredibly inefficient practice,” he said.

‘No Perfect Solution’
Ohio’s legislation empowers local districts to craft the specific parameters of performance-based compensation plans. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this,” Ryan said. “It’s absolutely the right thing to do to move in this direction. We need to be humble in recognizing there’s no perfect solution.”

Meanwhile, state education officials must provide technical assistance and data access. Springer says he believes this feature represents a positive design, noting many local agencies left to their own devices would develop weaker systems.

“We’ve seen in the past that schools and districts tend to implement more egalitarian models,” said Springer. “The bonus amount tends to be small. The reward structures are not based on the most rigorous measures.”

Ohio should commission a full research analysis of the teacher pay program to measure its effectiveness, Springer said.

“Otherwise, it’s all going to be lost,” he said.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado.