Welcome to the archives for NewsTalk, an IBJ blog published from November 2007 through December 2010.

Merit pay fireworks in the next General Assembly?

June 4, 2010

It’s going to be interesting to see how two national trends—a rising Republican tide and merit pay for teachers—manifest in the General Assembly next year.

Anti-incubency fever along with anger at Democrats over the bank bailout and health reform is fueling a massive swell for Republicans. One of many surveys pointing to the trend was a Gallup poll released this month showing 49 percent of respondents favoring a generic Republican congressional candidate and 43 percent preferring a Democrat. That’s the biggest gap in the 60 years Gallup has asked the question.

In Indiana, the Republican Party has been pushing hard to recover control of the House, and thus own both legislative chambers and the governor’s mansion. When Republicans controlled the House in 2005 and 2006, they leased the Indiana Toll Road and launched daylight-saving time among other major pieces of legislation.

Merit pay is rapidly making inroads, too. School districts in New York City and Washington, D.C., recently negotiated contracts that diminish seniority as the sole basis for raises. For just one indication of how much credibility merit pay has gained, imagine this New York Times Magazine story being published even three or four years ago.

In April, state schools chief Tony Bennett demanded that Indiana’s teachers unions support new legislation that would allow merit pay and promotions based in part on student test data—substantially changing a 1973 statute that outlines relationships between schools and teacher unions.

Union members, some of whom remember the days of dirt for pay, nepotists for school board members, and tyrants for administrators could be expected to launch an all-out assault on any attempt to tinker with the statute.

But Bennett is adamant teachers be paid at least in part on how students perform on tests: “They should be compensated for their great work just like other professionals are compensated for their great work.”

Bennett contends a market economy for teachers would force out the worst, reward the best, and make all who stay in the profession improve. He stops short of predicting salary levels of top teachers but adds that he believes districts would bid aggressively enough to elevate average compensation. Chemistry, physics and math teachers might top the pay charts, he says, although all fields tend to run in cycles of abundance and scarcity.

Here’s a related wildcard for the next session: Might Republicans feel emboldened to make Indiana a right-to-work state?

Economic development officials complain that one of the first questions from site consultants is whether the state is right-to-work; when they learn Indiana is not, the phone too often goes “click.”

If lawmakers were to pass right-to-work legislation, they would toss a hand grenade right in the middle of the industrial Midwest. All neighboring states, even Kentucky, also force workers to pay union dues if their co-workers opt for a union. Those states, some of which have discussed going to right-to-work, suddenly would feel even greater pressure to do so. Current right-to-work states are primarily in the West and deep South.

Time for your comments. What do you expect in the way of merit pay legislation? Right-to-work bills? Any thoughts about the pros and cons of either?


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