Ken Hare In Depth: Let's have performance pay for legislators

Published: Jan. 28, 2016 at 8:41 PM CST
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Let's start a two-track system for Alabama's legislators. First, no more raises ever for legislators who do not agree to limit themselves to two terms in office. In addition, no raises unless their constituents have large decreases in unemployment and major increases in personal income and in measurements of health; also, no increases unless new industries open in their districts. And let's have an independent  committee drop in unannounced on their committee meetings to rate them on how good they are.

While we're at it, let's ask all Alabamians to rate the performance of the Legislature and make that a component of legislative base pay. Forty percent approval rating for the Legislature equals 40 percent of pay. Let's spend a lot of tax money setting up a program designed to rank that approval rating.

Of course, none of that will ever happen in Alabama because legislators, not the public, determine their own pay rate.

But as some legislators are proposing similar ways to determine teacher pay in Alabama, it is interesting to reflect on how these same lawmakers might react to being treated in the same manner.

As an editorial writer for three decades in Alabama, I have strongly supported reforming the state's teacher tenure law, which can make it difficult and costly for some local school systems to weed out problem teachers. I also am  supportive of the concept of performance having a role in teacher pay. Finally, I imagine I have written more than tens of thousands of words in scores of editorials supporting higher pay as a way to attract and keep better teachers.

But proposals floating around legislative circles to create a two-tracked system of teacher pay and to base pay on student performance are badly flawed.

First, let's look at the two-track proposal.  Supposedly, this concept would include major pay raises for teachers who are willing to give up tenure protections.

Tenure needs to be reformed, but this is not the way to go about it. First and foremost, it still would allow problem teachers who know they are performing poorly to cling to their jobs indefinitely. Second, tenure for teachers in Alabama came about for a reason. Eliminating tenure protections completely would return some school systems to the days when unprofessional superintendents and school board members played favorites with teachers, pushing those out who did not support them and rewarding those who did. As long as Alabama continues to elect some school superintendents and most school boards, teachers need certain job protections.

Instead of using the promise of higher pay to bribe and coerce teachers into abandoning tenure, legislators should support reforms to the program. Those should include lengthening the time it takes for a teacher to earn tenure, and streamlining the appeals process to reduce the costs and time involved in appealing teacher dismissals.

Basing teacher pay on student performance is one of those concepts that sound appealing until someone tries to make it work in the real world.

The first impediment is how to measure that performance. Testing is the most common approach mentioned, but that is problematic for many reasons. The most basic is that we do not test students in every class and in every grade in  Alabama, and doing so would cost taxpayers a huge amount -- something legislators should know, but apparently some don't. We only have student academic improvement data for students in grades 4-8, and then only for certain courses.

There is also the problem that all student groups are not equal when it comes to the amount of work and talent it takes to teach them. A teacher who takes a certain class from point A to point B on a test may be doing a better job with that class than another teacher who takes a different group from point A to point C or beyond.

I've taught dozens of courses as an adjunct instructor at seven different colleges in my career. I've had classes that I had to work my hardest to move the needle up just a little bit on the knowledge scale. Meanwhile, the majority of students in other classes seemed to learn regardless of the effort I made.

There are so many other variables to learning. Do parents support and require homework? Do parents read in the home? What is the education level of parents? Or take a history teacher, for instance. If a history teacher has a class of students who cannot read at grade level, it's going to be difficult for that teacher to teach history.

I do not in any way suggest that changes do not need to be made in teacher performance measurements or teacher tenure or even teacher pay. Tenure needs to be limited and appeals streamlined. Teacher assessments need to be improved.

But those changes should only be made based on the recommendations of certain groups -- the state superintendent of education and experts at the state Department of Education, and school board and local superintendents associations, and, yes, even teachers.

Meanwhile, I cannot help but look back at a point a few years ago when Alabama legislators increased their own yearly pay for their part-time jobs to significantly more than the average household income in Alabama. I wonder how legislators would have reacted then if they had been forced to accept term limits (a popular concept at the time) and performance measures for their constituents as conditions in order to receive that higher pay.

Funny, but I don't remember any legislators mentioning those things at the time.

Ken Hare is a former editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for Feedback appreciated at

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