Tie School Taxes To Performance

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

Once again, as reliably as the spring sun melts away the winter drifts, Winnipeg’s property taxpayers are feeling their wallets shrink from the annual round of increased school division levies. The same thing is happening in Denver, Colorado, but instead of inciting public frustration, the change is giving citizens a reason to rejoice. Why? Because they’ve tied the additional spending to improved public school performance.

A recent Free Press editorial correctly described our Byzantine system of financing schools as a confused and exasperating mess. It called on the Province of Manitoba to stop the shell game by assuming full responsibility for funding, a wise recommendation. But this welcome reform would do little to attack the heart of the problem. Almost everybody is willing to pay a high price for this most essential of public services. What’s missing from the equation is any consideration of the quality of the product.

The circumstances in Denver differ from ours in one substantial respect. Teachers there are dreadfully underpaid, about $33,000 a year to start. On March 19, that’s what motivated the teachers’ union to vote for change. The average household will pay another $50 a year in school tax, but the money will go for salary hikes that average 12 percent. And the increased pay will depend on student academic growth as measured by test scores. Those who teach subjects with personnel shortages like math and science or in high-poverty schools will also receive more.

The new pay system includes an element of peer evaluation, but tackles our chronic problem of credential inflation. Teachers will be able to increase their salaries with additional training only if they can show that it somehow confers benefit in the classroom. That stands in sharp contrast to our methods. Enrolment in post-graduate courses at the U of M’s Faculty of Education is rising and a new report calls for more of the same. To quote one professor, “Virtually, all the programs are Mickey Mouse, easy to get in and easy to get through.” Since salaries are by far our single biggest budget buster, it’s time we tied costs to demonstrated benefits.

Of course, in the absence of objective means for evaluating teacher performance, we cannot adopt the Denver model. That’s another schizoid piece of our public school puzzle. We meticulously measure inputs, but do little to measure outputs.

In 1981, the Province adopted the FRAME report as a standardized method of ensuring accountability in education spending. Every division must follow the same framework for reporting how funds are allocated. Although FRAME is far from perfect – it lowballs administration costs, for instance, by allowing divisions to itemize as academic costs the salaries of staff who spend not one minute in a classroom – it has received widespread praise. It encourages transparency and allows for easy comparisons of outlays between divisions.

Yet we resolutely refuse to track student performance in any rigorous manner. A new Frontier Centre backgrounder suggests that we should adapt the FRAME template to that task, to create a new annual document called the Student Overall Achievement Report. SOAR, for short, would require the reinstatement of comprehensive standards tests in all core subject areas, but it would also include localized teacher assessments, graduation and attrition rates, and attendance. To avoid the danger of comparing apples and oranges, SOAR would also include demographic profiles of the student body and its socio-economic status.

This guarantee of fairness and accuracy is a key component of the Denver plan, and enables a worthy goal, merit pay for high-performing teachers. The premiums paid to those who take on the tough cases will go up if students from disadvantaged backgrounds show improvements in test scores. One cliché deserves endless repetition. A good grounding in the basics is the surest ticket out of poverty. We can’t use core-area public schools as effective anti-poverty programs unless we install workable incentives to improve student achievement and a reliable means of measuring it.

Denver is not alone. Dozens of school districts across the United States, most notably in Arizona, Iowa and Ohio, have embraced pay-for-performance models. According to a commission that evaluated these experiments three years ago, their successes are garnering increased support for the concept. Perhaps even more important is a parallel, and growing level of acceptance among teachers’ unions for a performance-based paradigm. A national organization called the Teacher Union Reform Network, or TURN, has signed up locals across North America who are tired of adversarial rhetoric.

Voters in Denver still have to approve the new spending, but with the union on board the chances for passage look good. To repeat, the public doesn’t usually mind having to pay the bills, as long as the goal of high quality schooling is within reach. Nor would Manitobans complain so bitterly about school taxes if they could be assured of improved results.