Schwarzenegger's Inner-City 'Combat Pay' Plan Draws Fire

Governor wants to give bonuses to teachers who work in California's toughest schools.

Continuing to apply the action-hero imagery of his movie career to his gubernatorial position, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is responding to California's mediocre scholastic-test scores and growing high school dropout rate with a controversial new plan that includes offering teachers so-called "combat pay" to work in the state's toughest schools.

Schwarzenegger, whose education secretary quit Wednesday, said he would outline his new proposal next month. He wants to scrap the way teachers are currently being paid — by seniority — and instead compensate them by merit, based on their students' test scores and evaluations. He also wants to offer so-called "combat pay" bonuses to teachers who work in inner-city schools, luring them away from more affluent institutions.

According to a poll released by the Public Policy Institute of California last month, 42 percent of Californians believe there is a substantial problem with the quality of education in K-12 public schools. Thirty-one percent see the education system in decline.

"The best and brightest teachers, the super teachers who make the biggest difference in the classroom, take home the same pay as those who just show up," Schwarzenegger said in a recent radio address. "That's because California teachers are rewarded only for seniority, not performance. The system offers no incentive to improve and no reward for great teachers who make a real difference in our low-performing schools."

But the proposition is failing to strike a chord with Sacramento heads and Democrats, who call the plan "unworkable."

Barbara E. Kerr, president of the California Teachers Association, issued a statement saying Schwarzenegger's "combat pay" initiative is out of touch with what students really need in schools. The association has protested Schwarzenegger in recent weeks, running TV ads claiming that the governor's education overhaul will cut money to public schools.

"The governor's comments make it seem like these schools are war zones, and that's insulting and degrading to our kids, teachers and their communities," she said. "Instead of addressing the state's education funding crisis and keeping his promises to fully fund our school system, the governor is wasting time on a political agenda that won't help improve our schools one bit. To attract quality teachers to these schools, we need smaller class sizes, adequate textbooks and clean and safe learning environments."

The state currently ranks 44th in per-pupil funding and is spending more than $600 below the national average per student, according to reports released by the nonprofit RAND Corporation in January.

The governor's press secretary, Margita Thompson, however, stressed Schwarzenegger's commitment to education, saying, "No other governor in the history of California has spent more money on education than Arnold Schwarzenegger." Of the state's $100 billion budget last year, more than $50 billion went to education, Thompson pointed out.

"His merit pay initiative is doomed," Kerr said. "His broken promises on funding and his spending cap proposal to weaken Proposition 98 [a state ballot initiative that guarantees a minimum level of funding for public schools] would mean $25,000 less for every classroom in this state. That's not reform, that's hurting our students and schools."

Thompson brushed aside criticism of the governor's proposal. "We absolutely have a responsibility to dedicate a large portion of the state's budget to our children," she said, "and the governor is very optimistic that we will be able to arrive at some negotiated agreement where we can reward teachers who are willing to go into these more challenging districts."

Of California's 50 largest school districts, 42 of them spend less on teachers' salaries in low-income schools than in other classrooms, according to a report by the Education Trust-West study group.

Prior to her three years teaching first graders at Point Dume Elementary School in Malibu, California, Laura Calek taught second graders for one year at Holmes Avenue Elementary School in South Central Los Angeles. She says there was not much difference in pay.

"When you teach in a low-income area like South Central, you basically sign in your contract that you're going to provide hours of tutoring, and that's why they called it combat pay," she said. "You're really getting paid to tutor kids who are in the most need of your help."

Calek said teachers' biggest concern is adequate funding, which, in California, has been reduced by $2.3 billion in the last year. She cites growing concerns over not just the state legislation, but the implication of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, which can punish schools if they don't meet standardized requirements.

"I know many teachers who are worrying about whether their pay is going to be based on whether or not these kids can pass a test, and no teacher is a miracle worker," she said. "There are so many more issues involved than just having a good teacher."