Friday, January 29, 2016

Teachers' union wary of governor's Teach for America investment, alludes to proposed National Board Certification rule change

Posted By on Fri, Jan 29, 2016 at 6:02 AM

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The Arkansas Education Association, which represents the state's public school teachers and support staff,  issued a statement on Gov. Asa Hutchinson's announcement Wednesday of a $6 million public/private partnership to add over 200 Teach for America teachers to schools in the Little Rock School District and districts in south and east Arkansas.

The release — which avoided mentioning TFA by name — said the AEA wasn't opposed to the investment, but added "we do have concerns." From the release:

We welcome the effort to provide additional resources to our public schools, but we believe that it is best to invest in teachers who are already dedicated to the success of Arkansas’s students.

An example of the State's commitment to investing in teachers is the funding provided to the nearly 3,000 National Board Certified Teachers in Arkansas (NBCT). NBCT teachers are not jump-starting a career in another sector, they are committed to being the best teachers they can be so that they can help students be academically successful. There is a direct correlation between National Board Certified Teachers in Arkansas and student success that cannot be ignored. 

National Board Certification is an advanced professional certification considered the gold standard for K-12 educators. Aside from alluding to the fact that most TFA teachers only remain in the teaching profession for a few years, the AEA is bringing up National Board Certified Teachers because of a rule change proposed by the Education Department in January concerning a $5,000 annual stipends that the state pays to NBCTs. The bonuses were mandated by an Arkansas law passed back in the early 2000s as a way to retain highly skilled teachers, and it's been successful — maybe too successful, if you're a fiscal hawk.

There are 2,877 such teachers in the state, the department's website saysIvy Pfeffer, an Assistant Commissioner at the department, told me that in 2007 there were only 565. That increase means it now costs about $13.8 million annually to pay the stipends — and the cost is expected to rise as more teachers renew their certifications. By fiscal year 2018, the projected cost of the stipends will be about $16.5 million.

So, either the stipends will require more money or they'll have to be scaled back. Here's the thing. Educators with National Board Certification have to renew it every ten years to remain certified (although the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which issues the certifications, is soon changing to a five-year renewal cycle instead). The state law that mandates the stipends is silent about whether or not teachers keep getting the annual bonus after they renew their certification.

In the past, the Education Department has kept paying the $5,000 annually if teachers got their National Board Certification renewed. But in January, in light of the rising costs, the department proposed that the stipends be gradually phased out for teachers that have renewed their certification.

"National Board Certification is a wonderful retention tool for Arkansas and the [Education Department] really wants to be able to work with National Board teachers. But we’re in a tough spot, because we have to work with the appropriation … and be good stewards of taxpayer money," Pfeffer said. "Right now, with the funding and the numbers it’s not going to be sustainable."

Of course, the legislature could appropriate more money for the program if it so chose. Note that the projected shortfall for this program in FY2018 is a little less than $3 million — the amount the governor will give to TFA from his discretionary fund. That's a coincidence; no one is claiming the Teach for America announcement and the change to the NBCT rule are actually related to one another. And it's a legitimate question about whether paying $5,000 stipends indefinitely is the  best way that money could be spent, even in the realm of teacher recruitment and retention. But still, it creates a stark contrast of priorities.

The AEA seems to be saying: Why give new public money to classroom neophytes when a program intended to retain veteran teachers needs additional cash?

Rep. Michael John Gray (D-Augusta) made that same point in a tweet after Hutchinson's announcement:
Gray told me yesterday that the proposed rule change would be unfair to longtime National Board Certified Teachers who expected to continue receiving those stipends.

The rule change is in a public comment period right now, after which the state Board of Education will take action on it.

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