Money Flows Into Teacher Bonus Program

The Associated Press
Sunday, October 22, 2006; 1:20 PM

WASHINGTON -- In the closing weeks of the fall campaign, the Bush administration is handing out money for teachers who raise student test scores, the first federal effort to reward classroom performance with bonuses.

The 16 grants total $42 million and cover many states. The government has announced only the first grants, $5.5 million for Ohio, where Education Secretary Margaret Spellings was making the presentation Monday.

The department will release the remaining grants in the coming weeks, falling right before the Nov. 7 elections in which a reeling Republican Party is eager for good news.

In Ohio in particular, the GOP could trumpet the news of money for the state education department. The $5.5 million will be shared by schools in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus and Toledo.

Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, is trailing his Democratic rival. Also, Democrats have led for weeks in two House seats long in Republican hands, and party officials talk of capturing two or three more seats. Such gains could help the Democrats take over the House.

The Education Department says the election had no bearing on the timing. The grant application process began in May, and the review was done in the early fall, officials said. Congress approved the program last year.

"It's always a little suspicious when you have these things come out just before the election, allowing members of Congress in tight races to get some money for their district," said Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association.

Using the old-fashioned incentive of cash, President Bush's program encourages schools to set up pay scales that reward some teachers and principals more than others. Those rewards are to be based mainly on test scores, but also on classroom evaluations during the year.

The grants are also aimed at luring teachers into math, science and other core fields.

Teachers normally are paid based on their years in class and their education. Yet more school districts are experimenting with merit pay, and now the federal government is, too.

It is not always popular. Teachers' unions generally oppose pay-for-performance plans, saying they do not fairly measure quality and do nothing to raise base teacher pay.

Spellings, though, says the money will be a good recruiting tool. The most qualified teachers tend to opt for affluent schools, she told The Associated Press.

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