Bonuses for best teachers in S.C. lose vote

Peggy Makins, an award- winning Columbia teacher, has the qualifications to become an administrator, including a doctorate in education, decades of classroom experience and national board certification.

But a $7,500-a-year stipend that South Carolina pays its top teachers is helping keep Makins in the classroom.

"I've thought about going into administration ... but I still love being in the classroom and the stipend is definitely part of my decision to stay," she said.

But that money may not be around for future S.C. teachers.

The Education Oversight Committee, a panel charged with watchdogging the state's public schools, voted unanimously Monday to cut the stipends which, along with related costs, cost South Carolina $62 million annually.

If the panel's recommendation is approved by state lawmakers, it would only affect teachers who apply for or earn national board certification after July 1. Teachers already certified or in the process of becoming certified before July 1 still would get the stipend.

The panel also voted to limit to 10 years the time period that a board-certified teacher could get the stipend.

If approved by the Legislature, the changes eventually would eliminate the program.

"We don't have the revenue to support it," Mike Brenan said to his fellow Education Oversight Committee members Monday. "And we don't have the underlying data ... that (the program) supports student achievement."

The $7,500-a-year bonus is paid to each teacher who passes the national certification process, including exams, essays, documentation of teaching practices and a teaching portfolio.

Often, local districts pay a second stipend to their board-certified teachers. Makins, for example, receives $5,500 a year from the Richland 1 school district in addition to the $7,500 state stipend.

"(Certification) is a lot of work and I was so glad there was a stipend," Makins said. "That money made all the work worthwhile. And I know I'm a better teacher for going through the process."

Currently, South Carolina has nearly 6,000 board-certified teachers in its classrooms, each of whom gets the stipend. Additional teachers who just have received the certification will be announced later this month.

Because of the growing ranks of certified teachers, an additional $6.4 million is needed to keep the program - now costing $62 million - afloat next year, according to Melanie Barton of the Education Oversight Committee.

But state money is tight.

And, with flat revenues and declining sales tax collections, some say the program is a luxury South Carolina can no longer afford.

As soon as today, more state budgets cut could be on the way, further straining public schools and other state agencies.

"There's going to come a day of reckoning when the stimulus money is gone and we're paying national board and all of these other (education) accounts too," Barton said. "What do you do?"

Plus, the Oversight Committee says research is mixed on whether nationally board-certified teachers get better results from students than teachers who are not board certified.

However, Kathy Maness, director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, a professional organization for teachers, said the stipends are essential for S.C. schools.

"Bottom line, they keep good teachers in the classroom," she said. "The only other way teachers can increase their pay is to go into administration."

If history as an indicator, the stipends will continue to be paid.

Last year, the Oversight Committee also recommended the stipends be nixed. But state lawmakers, who have the final say, voted to keep them in place.

"The vote was pretty solidly in our favor last year. And I don't see that changing this year," said state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, who sponsored an amendment last year to preserve the stipends.

"The members of the Legislature have long understood the priority of rewarding excellence in the teaching profession," he said.