Candidates for state schools’ chief spar over giving teachers in tough classrooms extra pay

In their contest to become the next state schools’ chief, candidates Tony Thurmond and Marshall Tuck clashed today over charter schools, the achievement gap and the state’s system on funding public schools. But their debate in Sacramento grew especially heated over whether to pay teachers more in low-income districts.

“Our kids of color have younger, less experienced teachers and principals that turn over more often than high income kids,” said Tuck. “I believe we have to differentiate pay for high poverty communities,” he said.

And then, referring to Thurmond, he added, “he doesn’t.”

Thurmond shot back that changing the pay scale would lead to a two-tier system, and then gave an example of a different kind of two-tier system—one presumably indexed to student test scores.

“I’m concerned when you create and differentiate a pay scale, you’re creating an invitation to encourage people to teach to the test,” he said. “Because that says, ‘You get certain results, you get paid a little bit better.’ ”

Teachers are currently paid based on tenure, a system reinforced by the California Supreme Court when it let stand an appeals panel’s ruling that it’s up the Legislature to set education policy. In practice, teachers are typically protected after they’ve worked for two years. The system is favored by teacher labor unions, although some legislators have argued it’s in need of reform.

Advocates for a different pay system suggest that teachers who work in low-income schools face more challenges than teachers working with kids from  higher income families.

“The students and their behaviors make this job harder—for sure. We can’t blame them, though,” said one San Francisco teacher who has taught at Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School, which aims to close the achievement gap for black students. “Many of our students come from homes that are loud, confusing, empty and unstable.”

Tuck—who has the backing of charter school proponents and previously ran charter schools and a nonprofit coalition of high-poverty schools in Los Angles—said “We actually paid principals more money to come work in Watts and East L.A. and South L.A.”

Thurmond, a Democratic assemblyman from Richmond who has the backing of the state’s top teachers’ union, said it’s important for teachers to work together, and to give them professional development outside of the school day.

The debate, sponsored by the Public Policy Institute of California, remained tense—so much so that the moderator had to implement a rule allowing each candidate a rebuttal anytime the other candidate aimed a barb. The result: a lot of rebuttal time.

Yet the event was not without its slivers of harmony. Tuck and Thurmond agreed that students need a better understanding of how government works and the role citizens play in electing officials and influencing legislation.

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