Last year, Gov. Nathan Deal had everyone thinking he would make major changes in the state’s public education system when the 2016 legislative session rolled around.
The governor indicated he was going to push especially hard on the issue of how teachers are paid.
Deal wanted to junk the current system where teacher pay is based on the years of experience and the advanced degrees a teacher earns (this is called T & E, for training and experience).
Instead, he wanted a "merit pay" system where teacher pay would be based on their effectiveness in improving student performance, which would largely be measured by scores on standardized tests.
Deal’s hand-picked education reform commission, which spent several months studying school funding issues, backed the governor strongly on performance-based pay.
Charles Knapp, the retired University of Georgia president who chaired the commission, argued that there wasn’t much research that indicated years of experience and extra degrees had anything to do with a classroom teacher’s effectiveness.
"Some master’s degrees make a difference, some don’t," Knapp said.
That dismissive attitude caused a lot of hostility among teachers, who said that Deal and his commission were trying to run off experienced educators so that they could cut down on salary and pension costs.
"Any pay scale that fails to incentivize experience and education can only be construed as an attempt to drive teachers out of the profession before they reach retirement," said Rebecca Johnson, who headed one of the ad hoc teachers’ groups.
"While the state budget might benefit from paying fewer retirement benefits and lower healthcare costs from fewer retirees, the children of Georgia will certainly not benefit from a revolving door of teachers," Johnson said.
Teachers made sure that legislators like House Speaker David Ralston were aware of their feelings on this explosive issue.
After an intense town hall meeting with teachers in his North Georgia district, Ralston said the case for merit-based pay had not been made. "I’m troubled by how you quantify and measure and get to the point that the concept wants to get at," he said.
Deal is known as a politician who usually forges ahead on an issue, no matter how much criticism and pushback he might get from the other side.
With the convening of a new legislative session last week, the stage was set for Deal to make his best sales pitch for merit-based teacher pay in his "State of the State" address to lawmakers.
Surprisingly, the governor pulled back on the issue. He did not propose, at least for this year, a change in the teacher pay scales, and he said he had some idea of why teachers might be wary of the proposal.
"I fully understand that there are many factors that impact test scores and graduation rates, and many of these are not within the control of our teachers," he said.
Deal pushed out another proposal that went over much better with teachers: he would include $300 million in his proposed state budget for a 3 percent teacher pay raise. The funds would be sent to local school boards, with the expectation that they would use the money to eliminate any remaining teacher furlough days and provide that pay raise.
Deal said his budget included another $26.2 million to give pay raises to pre-K teachers as well.
"Just because we are examining ways to more appropriately allocate taxpayer dollars and put in place different models to achieve better education results, it does not mean that you are not appreciated," Deal tried to reassure teachers.
Rather than barge ahead with the reform commission’s ideas on teacher pay and funding formulas, Deal asked the Legislature instead to take a year and study them carefully.
"I wanted this legislative body to conduct a full review of the commission’s recommendations," Deal said. "This will provide ample time to vet the full report."
Just like that, one of the most potentially explosive issues of this legislative session was defused. It appears there won’t be any showdowns between the governor and the speaker on this issue after all.
I’m sure Deal will be back to take another run at merit pay next year, but for the time being, teachers may be able to rest easy.