Though it will be rewritten before the legislative session begins Feb. 2, the first draft of an education bill from Alabama’s top senator, President Pro Tem Del Marsh, has definitely raised some eyebrows and already generated mixed reactions from education officials.

The 49-page draft of the Rewarding Advancement in Instruction and Student Excellence (RAISE) Act covers a lot of ground, but its main sticking point is given away in the acronym.

While Marsh and others have expressed interest in a separate, across-the-board pay increase for teachers, the RAISE Act would establish a system of merit increases for teachers based on professional evaluation and student performance and increase the time needed to reach tenure status from three years to five.

Alabama Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh.

Alabama Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh.

As it is currently worded, teachers hired after 2017 would be allowed to opt out of the tenure system to pursue merit-based pay, sacrificing job security for a chance at more-frequent pay increases. The decision would be permanent, but according to the legislation, teachers opting for the merit system could start out making as much as $2,500 more than their counterparts.

The plan for the merit system is somewhat broken down in the draft of the bill, which indicates that up to 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on evidence of growth in student achievement. Other factors like classroom observations and surveys of parents and students would also make up a portion of a teacher’s overall evaluation.

Where it applies, some of the “student growth model” teachers are measured against would be based on students’ standardized test results, and specifically the state-measured ACT Aspire assessment or “any subsequent test that replaces it.”

“A [school] board shall base decisions regarding significant differentiation in pay, retention, promotion, dismissals and other staffing decisions primarily on evaluation results,” the draft reads.

While some, including the Alabama Education Association, have already criticized the bill, the Alabama Policy Institute and others are in support of tenure reform. In fact, API recently released its own study that takes a critical view of the current system, calling it “a disservice to students.”

Locally, Mobile County Schools Superintendent Martha Peek wasn’t willing to comment on the RAISE Act specifically because of its expected rewrite. However, she did say she is wary of merit pay based on student performance, calling it a “complex issue.”

“In districts where you have a very diverse population, you have to take all those factors into account,” Peek said. “The natural tendency is to want to tie that incentive pay to one test, and I think that we’ve seen that there are many more measures to student success than just one test.”

Peek’s comments came just a few days after the U.S. Department of Education released a study urging states to “take caution when using student growth percentile scores for teacher evaluation.”

The study, which evaluated teachers in a Nevada School District, found that “half or more of the variance in teacher scores” was caused by random or otherwise unstable sources and didn’t provide “reliable information that could predict [a teacher’s] future performance.”

Despite those concerns, however, the local school system has already had one fairly successful foray into incentive pay for teachers, when the system reconstituted five schools in Mobile County in 2004.

The school system replaced the schools’ entire staffs, offering new teachers signing bonuses and incentive pay to take positions at the struggling schools. Yet despite improvements at those schools — some of it significant — Peek said incentive pay is something that must be “considered carefully.”

“It’s a very intricate process to set goals and measure the effectiveness of those goals,” she added.

Almost as soon as it was unveiled, the RAISE Act came up in the race for the District 1 seat on Alabama’s State Board of Education. At least two of the candidates are taking opposing positions on the very concept at the legislation’s core.

Adam Bourne Chickasaw City Councilman Adam Bourne is currently challenging incumbent Matthew Brown. Bourne said bills like the RAISE Act are what drew him into the District 1 race.

Claiming educators are being targeted “as scapegoats,” Bourne said changes like those proposed in the RAISE Act would only make teaching in Alabama less attractive by adding more responsibilities without “a measurable increase” in salary. He also believes it would have a negative effect on students.

“If we decide to institute merit pay, the good teachers are going to naturally avoid low-performing schools and those that are in tough neighborhoods,” Bourne said. “It will be easier to earn that merit pay in well-to-do neighborhoods with wealthy parents, and what you’ll see is a brain drain from poor schools throughout the state.”

On the contrary, Brown, who was appointed by Gov. Robert Bentley last summer, believes it’s the current system that is bad for students. Brown said he “very supportive” of reforming the current tenure system and “rewarding teachers who are doing an exceptional job.”

Matthew Brown, chairman of the Educate Baldwin Now PAC, was recently appointed by Governor Robert Bentley to the Alabama Board of Education.

Matthew Brown, chairman of the Educate Baldwin Now PAC, was recently appointed by Governor Robert Bentley to the Alabama Board of Education.

“Seniority-based promotions and layoffs protect teachers with poor work habits and performance records while discouraging less-senior teachers with great work habits and high performance records,” Brown said via email. “This protectionism does not help our students and does not enhance the image of teachers as professionals.”

However, Brown did clarify that he wasn’t speaking in support of the RAISE Act specifically though he did applaud legislators for “initiating a conversation on these important issues.”

The initial version of the bill contained a section establishing the Alabama Longitudinal Data System Center, a new entity that would compile information about student test scores and other information used in determining teacher performance.

Though it stated the center would follow all laws pertaining to student and family privacy, the bill also would have permitted “de-identified information may be used in analyses and research activities by the center and qualified third parties.”

Bourne said that type of mass collection of student data is something else he’s concerned with, whether it comes through the RAISE Act or any other piece of legislation.

“It creates a whole new bureaucracy for the purpose of collecting and tracking permanent data on our children. Currently, it’s something a lot of parents are telling me they’re concerned about,” he said.

Lagniappe reached out to Marsh for comment on the RAISE Act and the changes it could possibly see before the legislative session starts. However, a response has not been received.