Which teachers deserve the most pay?

Teachers in Washington are bracing themselves for state cuts to education that could hit them in the paycheck.

Legislators are looking at freezing or reducing the money given to local school districts to pay teachers. A Senate budget proposal calls for a 3 percent pay reduction.

Lawmakers also are discussing cutting the bonuses teachers receive for completing National Board Certification.

Both measures would help close a projected state deficit of more than $5 billion over the next two-year budget cycle, but they are a long way from being adopted in the 30-day budget-focused special session.

Teachers aren’t just worried about efforts to cut the state budget. Lawmakers are considering a different plan that teachers fear could erode state salary funding down the road.

A measure originally proposed by state Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, and Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, would have trimmed the state salary schedule that rewards teachers for longevity on the job and advanced college degrees. The state schedule determines how state funds are allocated, but local school districts negotiate with their teachers unions how those funds are distributed across the pay scale.

“Education is one of the few areas where a superstar and a slug get paid the same,” said Tom. “In any real profession, it doesn’t work that way.”

Karen McNamara, president of the Puyallup Education Association teachers union, said the concept of dialing back the salary schedule isn’t designed to save money due to the budget crisis.

“This wouldn’t save them money,” she said. “It’s just a backhanded way to bring in merit pay and destroy collective bargaining rights.”

Tom agrees that changing the salary schedule isn’t aimed at budget reduction. Instead, he wants to redirect the dollars already going into the system. He wants a system “where great teachers are paid more than not-so-great teachers.” Master’s degrees and longevity don’t always go hand-in-hand with great teaching, he argues. Research published by the National Council on Teacher Quality in 2010, for example, found that advanced degrees held by teachers had little impact on student achievement.

McNamara, a veteran of 31 years in education with a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, disagrees.

She said that when she was in the classroom, her master’s work guided her.

“I used it every day,” she said.

McNamara said that legislators who now cite research saying a master’s degree doesn’t matter have forgotten that the state once required it of teachers. The master’s degree rule, adopted in 1987 and repealed in 1992, met with opposition from teachers who said it was time consuming and expensive.

The Zarelli-Tom proposal would have phased out salary allocations for teachers with more than eight years of service – as opposed to the current 16 – and with education beyond a bachelor’s degree plus 45 college credits. The current plan adds money for teachers who hold a master’s or doctoral degree.

Under the Zarelli-Tom proposal, teachers in math, science or special education would have been the exception, and would have been rewarded for holding a master’s degree in those hard-to-staff fields.

While their Senate bill is no longer alive in its original form, amendments to House Bill 1443 – a broad education reform bill – urges that a committee known as the compensation work-group study pay issues. Those issues are defined to include how the pay system should reward years of service, educational degrees and extra college credits, along with performance measured by a four-tiered evaluation system, teaching in high-demand fields such as science and National Board Certification.

The group – to be named this summer and charged with reporting to the Legislature – would include lawmakers, as well as representatives of the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the teachers union, school administrators, principals, school board members and others.

The group would be asked to reduce the number of salary tiers. But the proposal also says teachers on the existing salary model would have the option of becoming grandfathered in to the current salary scale.

While the compensation work group has yet to iron out details, teachers and their union representatives are worried about possible outcomes.

“Clearly there are some legislators and other non-educators promoting dramatic changes in the way teachers are paid,” said Washington Education Association spokesman Rich Wood. “Teachers are rightfully alarmed.”

Wood said that proposals like the one from Zarelli and Tom show a “lack of understanding of how the current compensation works” and a lack of understanding of how local unions and school districts negotiate pay scales.

But Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, said the effort to rebuild pay schedules reflects what happens in most of the private sector.

“There are very few examples where you are paid based on input – your time there or your credentials – and not on output,” he said. “The whole issue is that if you’re a good teacher, you should be compensated for that.”

And that compensation should be based on what a teacher does in the classroom and how that is reflected in student performance, he added. Those who aren’t good at what they do – and Litzow insists that any 15 playground moms can tell you who they are – should be counseled out of the profession.

He said the state is already working on a new teacher-evaluation system that would help determine how teachers are judged.

But WEA’s Wood said that if attacks on teachers and their earnings continue, “teaching may no longer be as attractive as a profession.”

“If we want to keep quality teachers in the classroom, we can’t do that by cutting their pay,” he added.

Stephanie Giustino, who teaches at Glacier View Junior High School in Puyallup, said altering the salary schedule to remove pay for advanced degrees would send the wrong message to students – that education doesn’t matter.

Giustino is an 18-year classroom veteran. She’s also married to a teacher. If compensation for time and advanced education were cut back, her household would lose an estimated $30,000 to $35,000, she said.

Giustino said she wouldn’t encourage her daughter to enter the teaching profession in the current climate.

“It’s not enticing to new teachers,” she said.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635