SALT LAKE CITY — An initiative intended to stem high rates of teacher turnover in some the state's most demanding schools is headed to the Utah House of Representatives.
The latest version of HB212, sponsored by Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, was approved by the House Education Committee with a 6-4 vote Wednesday after more than an hour of intense discussion and debate.
"If you love your local school districts, rather than giving them more shackles, give them more tools," Winder said of the proposal.
HB212 would provide to participating school districts partial funding for bonuses for teachers in high-poverty schools whose students demonstrate academic growth over a three-year period.
Stipends would be available to teachers at the state's poorest schools, where 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch or at least 20 percent of students come from families experiencing intergenerational poverty. More than 90 schools would qualify, according to Winder.
Half of the $5,000 bonus would be paid with state funds, and school districts would provide a match so local education authorities "have some skin in the game," he said.
The bill, which has some 20 co-sponsors, was supported by public policy, business interests and a college professor who trains teachers.
Michael Parker, public policy director of the Salt Lake Chamber, said the organization's 2020 education initiative focuses on innovation, accountability and investment.
"I'll simply say this bill addresses all three," Parker said.
But others said it was unfair to gauge teacher effectiveness through students' scores on SAGE tests. Moreover, the number of teachers who could qualify for the bonus is limited because younger elementary students don't take SAGE tests and 70 percent of high school educators teach subjects not assessed by the test.
"It's not necessarily increasing the number of effective teachers on the whole," said Sara Jones, the Utah Education Association's director of government relations.
Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, objected to the underlying message of the bill.
"It's tragic to me we want to keep messaging, 'No one wants to teach you. Our best teachers don't want to teach you.' I think that's awful. We make some assumptions about low income, and my family was there not too long ago," Coleman said.
If the goal of the legislation is to improve morale, Coleman said she believes it will do the opposite by "drawing a line" between teachers deemed "effective" and those who are not.
But Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said there are times when "there has to be an extra incentive to keep them in tough situations to allow them to thrive."
Some teachers are in more demand than others, and some educators are more effective than others, he said.
"That's no different than real estate agents, accountants, doctors or hospital administrators," said Gibson, who is the latter.
"There are some that are really good and some not so good. But somehow, paying people based on merit or based on performance is a foreign concept in education," he said.
Forrest Crawford, professor of teacher education at Weber State University, said the incentive to teach at more challenging schools might open teacher candidates' eyes to the possibility of working in schools outside their comfort zones.
"It's not likely that they deliberately set out to teach in schools that have formidable challenges with those learners," he said.
Crawford said it's particularly a challenge as schools become more diverse and the pool of the state's best-trained teachers do not reflect the state's growing diversity.
The bill would require a $365,000 appropriation to implement and would compete among other funding priorities.
Winder said he views the incentive "as a need to do more" and better utilize the talents of "rock star" teachers.
"This is a pilot program. This is a demonstration project. There's a lot of fears and 'what ifs' and hand-wringing. Let's give it a try and see what it can do," he said.
"Because it is a bonus program, were it to disappear in five years from now, then I think we will have learned a lot. I suspect, based on New York City's successful experiment in 1999 that attracted 600 new teachers to the most needy areas, this will thrive," Winder said.