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C H A P T E R 4 ————— The Intensification of Educational Politics Historians of public education in the United States are fond of reminding people that politics and education have shared the same bed for well over a century. What is arguably unique to the past few decades, however, is the expansion and intensification of educational politics. Nowhere has this trend been more evident than in Fairfax County. Most of the individuals interviewed for this book commented on the proliferation of special interest groups and the prevalence of partisanship on virtually every issue facing the school system. No longer can school system leaders count on a reasonable level of agreement when changes are proposed. Most reform initiatives bring out well-organized groups of advocates and opponents. Some observers believe that the primary victim of increased politicization has been an overarching sense of the common good. No matter what the proposal for educational improvement, Fairfax educators know they will hear complaints ranging from inequity to excessive cost. In no area of school operations has the mounting contentiousness been more evident than finance. When coffers are full, school systems may be able to placate most groups making educational demands, but when resources dry up and cuts must be made, educators quickly get a lesson in who has political influence and who doesn’t. The history of merit pay in FCPS provides a useful example of the interplay of local politics and economics. Chapter 4 begins by tracing the rise of merit pay and the subsequent impact of the economic downturn of the early ’90s. The next section looks in greater detail at how the Fairfax School Board confronted retrenchment during the period from 1991 through 1992. Budget problems surfaced again in the new millennium, but this time the School Board members who had to decide what to cut were elected instead of appointed, as their predecessors had been. The chapter examines how an elected School Board dealt with financial challenges and 93 whether its response was significantly different from that of appointed School Boards. Not all examples of the heightened intermingling of politics and education in Fairfax County necessarily involve financial matters. The chapter closes with a look at one nonfinancial issue—sex education—and how it periodically generated considerable controversy. The Rise and Fall of Merit Pay If employees are paid for performance in the private sector, why should a similar approach to compensation not work for public school teachers? Such reasoning apparently persuaded President Reagan to throw his support behind the drive to introduce merit pay in school systems. Even Virginia Democrats, including Governor Charles Robb, endorsed a form of merit pay for the purpose of rewarding talented teachers and increasing the likelihood that they would continue to teach. When a consulting firm was invited to study Fairfax’s personnel policies in 1984, its recommendations reflected the times by calling for the development of an evaluation process that linked teacher pay to classroom performance. The School Board subsequently supported a limited test of the idea (Latimer, February 24, 1984). The pilot program originally designated participants as probationary, career, or master teachers based on their experience and performance. Master teachers would receive annual salary increases. Bonuses also would be used to recruit teachers for hard-to-fill positions and attract skilled teachers to troubled schools. Local teacher organizations opposed the plan from the outset. Among their concerns was the possibility of arbitrary judgments by evaluators and questionable evaluation procedures. At the time, tenured teachers in Fairfax were observed several times every other year and given a rating of satisfactory, needs improvement , or unsatisfactory on various teaching functions. Administrators, however, did not always agree among themselves about what constituted acceptable and unacceptable performance, thereby buttressing teachers’ apprehensions regarding merit pay. Superintendent Burkholder also wondered whether the school system could afford the $331,000 price tag for the pilot program (Latimer, May 19, 1984). Despite these objections, the School Board insisted on moving ahead with merit pay. When they 94 Education Empire replaced Burkholder in 1985, they specifically looked for a leader who could implement a merit pay plan. An in-house assessment of the merit pay pilot following its first year revealed a variety of problems (Cohn, June 28, 1985). Faulting hasty planning, the report noted “confusion, inconsistency , miscommunication and frustration” regarding merit pay. School Board members were asked to support a cessation of the pilot, while a task force was convened to iron out the kinks. This delay also would...


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