House Republican wants bonus payments for teachers to replace funding for at-risk students

TOPEKA — Rep. Kristey Williams dueled Tuesday with school board lobbyist Mark Tallman over her proposal to create a bonus pay scheme for teachers by diverting funds earmarked for schools with a high concentration of low-income families.

House Bill 2690 would reward teachers in schools where students show 5% gains on standardized tests or maintain a 90% proficiency level over the past four years. The $5,000 bonuses — or $2,500 for minor student progress — would begin in the 2025-26 school year.

Funding for the merit program would come from a $50 million annual grant designed to boost the achievement of at-risk students. That funding source is scheduled to expire in 2024, which would leave a year-long funding gap for public schools.

The Kansas Policy Institute, a longtime opponent of public school funding, was the bill’s sole supporter. Opponents include the Kansas Association of School Boards, which Tallman represents, as well as the teachers’ union, a coalition of public school advocates, the Kansas State Board of Education, and the Kansas PTA.

Williams, an Augusta Republican and chair of the House K-12 Education Budget Committee, said funding for at-risk students should boost performance. Without those wins, the money is “lost,” she said.

“We can’t just do what we’ve always done and we can’t expect increases in performance, and we can’t not incentivize or reward increases in performance,” Williams said.

She asked Tallman, “What do you think motivates schools to increase their knowledge?”

Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, questions Mark Tallman during a hearing Tuesday at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Tallman said he doesn’t know of any school board or teacher who doesn’t care about achievement gains.

He offered a historical perspective: As Kansas public school resources increased, districts used those funds to improve educational outcomes. As resources declined from 2009 to 2017, performance measurements declined, he said.

Legislators in 2018 passed a plan to increase public school spending over five years to bring funding back to 2009 levels after adjusting for inflation. Progress has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Tallman said.

Williams claimed that funding did indeed increase during the period Tallman was referring to — a claim based on KPI’s strategy of matching pre-Governor Sam Brownback administration spending levels with spending levels plus contributions to the federal employees’ pension fund merge.

Tallman said the counties with the greatest needs would see the biggest loss under Williams’ plan, including eight counties that would lose $300 per student. Another 27 districts would lose between $200 and $300 per student.

“If the only answer to better student performance is better teachers or better teaching, why is poor performance so disproportionately concentrated in low-income families and schools with high percentages of these children?” Tallman said. “It seems to us because these kids bring so many other factors into school that instruction alone cannot overcome.”

By turning risky money into incentives for teachers, Tallman said the legislature would impose a unified strategy for improving educational outcomes.

“If you take away those dollars, maybe that teacher can get a bonus, but there would be fewer assistants or assistants or one-on-one or summer school programs,” Tallman said.

Rep. Susan Estes, R-Wichita, questions Mark Tallman during a hearing Tuesday at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Rep. Susan Estes, a Republican from Wichita, said she was disappointed that the school boards that Tallman represents didn’t use the funding increase to pay teachers what they deserve.

“It’s hard to do your job well when you’re worried about paying your bills,” Estes said. “We have teachers who are entitled to free and discounted lunches – and that’s shameful.”

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