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Teacher stipend might be cut

A teacher program, billed for the past dozen years as a way to improve South Carolina's public schools, is on the chopping block.

Some S.C. educators say the program, known as National Board Certification, is a failure that is not increasing student achievement, is costing the state $62 million annually and deserves to be cut during these tight economic times. The state gives more than 6,000 certified teachers an additional $7,500 in salary per year.

Others point to research they say proves the program enhances instruction and student learning and rewards the nation's best teachers.

The program's precarious future will take center stage Monday during a meeting of the Education Oversight Committee, the state's education watchdog group.

Its members are expected to recommend two changes to lawmakers that will essentially sunset the program. They are:

- Eliminating the $7,500 annual stipend after July 1. (Teachers who already are National Board certified or in the process of becoming certified prior to July 1 will continue to receive the stipend.)

- Limiting to 10 years the length of time a National Board-certified teacher can receive the stipend.

HOW WE GOT HERE

In 2001, then-Gov. Jim Hodges and his counterparts in other states, including Florida and Texas, made the National Board program a priority.

Hodges, who pushed for the $7,500 stipend, established a lofty goal: South Carolina would have 5,000 teachers certified by the end of 2005.

In the years since, state investment in the program has increased steadily as the number of certified teachers has increased, growing from a $30.4 million program in fiscal year 2001-02 to a $62 million program today.

South Carolina now has nearly 6,000 National Board-certified teachers in classrooms, ranking it third in the nation. Only Florida and North Carolina have more teachers who have completed the one- to three-year certification process.

While most states provide incentive pay for teachers who qualify, South Carolina is among the most generous.

The state's school districts have bought in as well.

Many districts give an additional stipend to their teachers worth as much as $5,500 a year.

But state budget cuts and declining revenues, paired with a lack of definitive research on the effectiveness of the program, have soured many on the program.

"We just can no longer afford the program," said Mike Brenan, a member of the EOC.

"With declining dollars, you've got to make tough choices. Plus, there is no underlying research that directly shows it improves student achievement," he said. "If we had lots of money, maybe we could continue the investment and see, on a longer basis, if it got results."

Advocates of the program, including the S.C. Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement, say the stipends keep quality teachers in the classroom.

"(The money stays) in the classroom versus going to administration or going elsewhere," said CERRA's Jenna Hallman. "If you're able to keep a teacher in the classroom, (then) they're going to improve and impact student achievement."

State Department of Education spokesman Jim Foster said the stipends amount to an early attempt at performance pay that's rewarded the state's best teachers for going the extra mile.

"But ... in the long run, it won't be enough by itself to create the world-class teaching force we need," Foster said, adding that State Superintendent Jim Rex is pushing for a comprehensive overhaul of S.C. teacher pay that includes performance pay.

DOES IT GET RESULTS?

Trying to decide whether certified teachers get better results in the classroom is like trying to determine whether the chicken or the egg came first, researchers say.

Does the process make certified teachers better teachers or are better teachers the ones most likely to pursue certification?

Also, a variety of factors affect student performance, according to several studies, including a 2005 study by USC. That makes it difficult for researchers to single out National Board Certification and gauge its impact on students.

A January 2008 EOC review of research found a positive correlation between certified teachers and student results.

But overall, research on the program is a mixed bag, according to the report.

Sheila Gallagher, president of the state's teachers union, the S.C. Education Association, said research this year shows board-certified teachers get better results in the classroom, are more likely to remain teachers than their noncertified counterparts and are more reflective and student-focused.

"I'm sorry to hear members of the EOC say there's not research that this program works," said Gallagher, who has encouraged members to write letters to EOC members and lawmakers supporting the stipends. "This program, it's working. And when you look at that amount of money spread across all of the (board-certified) teachers, it's not that much money."

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