By Stephanie Simon
(Reuters) - A wealthy school district in Colorado is launching a radical experiment that sets a different pay scale for each category of educator, ensuring that even the best third-grade teacher would never earn as much as a veteran high-school math teacher.
The new system, which takes effect next month for all 3,300 educators in suburban Douglas County, Colorado, has sparked fury and resentment among some teachers and some parents. But it has also drawn interest from superintendents around the nation.
"It's quite novel," said Eric Hanushek, an education economist at Stanford University.
School districts across the United States have traditionally treated all teachers the same; no matter what grade or subject they taught, they started at the same base salary and received the same raises for experience and advanced degrees.
In recent years, districts have tried to differentiate a bit by offering merit pay to their most effective educators, signing bonuses for teachers in high-poverty schools, and pay bumps for those in hard-to-staff fields, such as special education. But Douglas County's system goes much further.
The district's chief human relations officer, Brian Cesare, said he asked school administrators, "Which jobs keep you up at night because they are so difficult to fill?" Using the answers as a gauge of supply and demand, he divided teaching jobs into five salary bands.
Most elementary, art and physical education teachers are in the lowest bracket; their annual salary tops out at $61,000. Middle-and high-school English teachers can earn up to $72,000. High-school science and math teachers draw upper salaries of $82,000. At the very top: Special education therapists, who max out at $94,000.
QUIRKS IN SYSTEM
The broad categories contain some quirks: The district is more selective about kindergarten and first grade teachers than other elementary teachers, Cesare said, so they fall in a higher bracket. Middle school social studies teachers are considered easy to hire, so they're in the lowest bracket.
The goal, Cesare said, is to "pay the top more... the bottom less."
No teacher currently employed by Douglas County will have to take a pay cut, but if they're earning more than their market value, their merit bonuses will be smaller, Cesare said.
A sprawling swath of suburbia between Denver and Colorado Springs, Douglas County is one of the wealthiest in the nation, with a well-regarded school system. A slate of conservative Republicans took control of the school board in 2009 and has pushed through a series of controversial policies, including expanding the number of charter schools and providing vouchers to help students pay tuition at private and religious schools. The voucher system is being challenged in court.
The board abolished traditional tenure protections for teachers in 2010 and said last year it would no longer recognize the teachers' union after contract negotiations hit an impasse.
With no contract to set guidelines on salaries, performance evaluations or working conditions, the board is free to impose systems like the new market-based pay rate.
"We no longer exist," said Brenda Smith, the president of the local union, who has mustered protests against the new system but cannot block it.
She said the pay bands had already begun to create tension in schools as teachers wondered aloud why colleagues down the hall were valued so much more than they were, based solely on the subject they chose to teach.
"I really don't believe a P.E. teacher works less than I do. He has more kids than I do. And he may be the one who's keeping some kids in school so they'll sit through my class," high-school English teacher Carlye Holladay said. "You need so many different kinds of teachers to reach all kids."
Some parents have protested, too. "To say that elementary teachers are of less value than middle or high school teachers - that's just unacceptable," said Carrie Fieger, whose sons just finished second and fourth grades.
But supporters say it's high time to let free-market forces shape public education.
When Georgetown University economist Marguerite Roza looked at data from just one school year, 2007-8, she found that states spent a collective $15 billion to give automatic pay hikes to teachers who earned advanced degrees - even though there is scant evidence that improves education, she said. Relying on market forces to set salary instead is "a step in the right direction," Roza said.
Terry Grier, the school superintendent in Houston, Texas, is another fan of the Douglas County approach. "It ought to be the wave of the future," he said.
(Editing by Scott Malone; Editing by Doina Chiacu)