The recent midterm elections placed the Republicans firmly in the majority in the House of Representatives, setting up Congressman John Boehner to become the new Speaker of the House. Not long ago, GPPR staff sat down with Representative Boehner—then-chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce—for a brief discussion on education reform and teacher compensation. In recognition of the recent elections and Representative Boehner’s likely new post, the GPPR Executive Board has decided to republish this interview, which originally appeared in the 2002 print edition of the Review.
The No Child Left Behind Act is designed to ensure that every classroom is headed by a qualified teacher and recommends funds be used for the recruitment, training, and support of qualified teachers. How do you envision that succeeding given the rigidity of the teacher pay structure?
The No Child Left Behind Act calls for states to have a highly qualified teacher in every classroom by 2005. This is an ambitious goal, but it is also an achievable one if we give states and local schools the flexibility to make decisions that are most suited to the unique needs of their students and faculties. As part of the No Child Left Behind reforms, President Bush and Congress provided a 35 percent increase in federal teacher quality funds to give states and local districts additional resources to train, recruit, and retain quality teachers. That funding increase is maintained in the president’s budget request for the upcoming fiscal year. But along with that, we provided states and local districts greater control over those funds and more freedom to decide how those funds should be used. We think the key to successfully implementing the goal of putting a quality teacher in every classroom lies in allowing schools greater flexibility, not saddling them with more requirements and rigidity.
Historically the state has been responsible for setting up guidelines for teacher pay. Given the recent legislation, do you feel that the federal government should reconsider its role in establishing a national pay scale for teachers?
Teachers are absolutely essential, and they are among the most underpaid, underappreciated professionals in America. There is no question that many, if not most, school teachers deserve better pay and greater support. But putting the federal government in charge of setting salaries would be a nightmare for our teachers. They have tried such a thing in Britain, and the result has been that many poor schools cannot put enough teachers in the classroom to teach children the basic skills they need. Democrats and Republicans took a much more sensible approach in the No Child Left Behind Act, giving states and schools more resources for teacher quality, but letting them make the final decisions about how those funds would be used.
For example, one school might decide to focus those new funds on hiring additional teachers, while another might want to focus them on training and retaining existing teachers. States and schools need as much flexibility as we can give them if they are to be expected to succeed in putting a highly qualified teacher in every classroom by 2005.
It is also worth noting that the act explicitly bans anything resembling a national teacher test or certification process. Members agreed this is a responsibility that should be left to the states. We do not trust the federal government to test teachers, so why would we trust it to set teacher salaries?
In January 2001, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) introduced in the Senate the Master Teacher Act of 2001, which aimed to increase teacher pay for teachers who enter into contracts with local educational agencies and served as master teachers. In March 2001, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced in the Senate an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which suggested signing and mastery bonuses for teachers in math and science. These pieces of legislation seem to support a merit pay structure for teachers. How do you think this pay structure would effect the teaching profession?
I am not familiar with either proposal. In general, I would prefer that we continued to provide funding to local schools with as few strings attached as possible. As long as they are getting results and student achievement is improving, local schools should decide how to compensate and reward quality teachers. There are things the federal government can do, however. In February, President Bush proposed providing up to $17,500 in student loan forgiveness for math, science, and special education teachers who serve in low-income schools for five years. Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a member of our committee, has formally introduced this legislation in the House as the CLASS ACT (Canceling Loans to All School Systems to Attract Classroom Teachers). The need for quality teachers in these subjects is critical in low-income areas.
Troops to Teachers is a federal program that assists military personnel after discharge, release, or retirement, in obtaining teaching certifications. Individuals who move from a military career to the teaching profession are moving from a profession that has a very intricate pay structure that considers both experience and certification levels when determining salary, to a system somewhat ad hoc depending on the state, city, and district. What do you think about the possibility of the federal government establishing a pay scale for teachers similar to that of the military?
I support the Troops to Teachers program, which is designed to help eligible members of the armed forces obtain certification or licensure as elementary and secondary school teachers, and vocational or technical teachers. The No Child Left Behind Act continues the Troops to Teachers program and also reauthorizes the Transition to Teaching recruiting program, which follows the Troops to Teachers model to help high-need local educational agencies recruit and train highly qualified teachers.
As I indicated earlier, putting the federal government in charge of teacher salaries is a recipe for disaster. The federal government can provide some additional resources as we have in the No Child Left Behind Act, but states and local communities should retain control of those resources. Putting Washington in charge will mean less efficiency, less flexibility, more rigidity, and more bureaucracy. Teachers have to contend with enough of that already.
What kind of political support is there to reform the teacher compensation system?
I think Democrats and Republicans agree we need to find ways to attract more quality teachers into low-income schools. States and schools should be allowed to use federal teacher quality funds as they see fit to train, recruit, and retain quality teachers, as they are under the No Child Left Behind Act. That is a start. At the federal level, we are working this year to build on that start. President Bush this spring signed into law legislation letting teachers deduct up to $250 a year for classroom expenses that they pay for out of their own pockets, as most teachers do. We are working to enact reforms like Rep. Graham’s CLASS ACT to encourage more teachers to teach math, science, and special education. We need to reduce the red tape burden on teachers in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is steering many teachers away from special education; that is another area we will address this year.