ATLANTA -- Teachers in a record 155 Georgia schools will seek to earn $2,000 merit bonuses during the upcoming year for helping their students meet academic goals.
The Georgia Board of Education approved schools in more than 50 systems for the state's pay-for-performance program, which has taken off in recent years after a struggling start.
The program is flourishing at the same time Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Guy Millner has been running TV advertising calling for "merit pay for teachers."
Republican State School Superintendent Linda Schrenko said Millner's proposal is no different than those of candidates promoting things such as expanded child care, school report cards and teacher certification.
"I could have a 15-second advertisement and say, `they're all right and we are already doing it,"' she said.
Lawmakers approved Gov. Zell Miller's legislation during the early 1990s creating a merit pay system. There were complaints, however, when the program was instituted that it required too much paperwork and was under-advertised.
"Nobody knew about it," Mrs. Schrenko said.
Under the program, schools apply for the merit awards with specific academic goals in mind, including improvement on standardized tests. If schools meet 80 percent of those goals, they receive $2,000 per certified staff member.
In 1993-94, only 10 schools received awards. That had increased to 59 in 1996-97. The state gave out $6.7 million in awards that year.
During 1997-98, the Board of Education approved 99 schools to take part in the program. The Department of Education has not yet determined how many met their goals and will receive the awards this fall.
During the 1998-99 school year, 155 schools will participate.
Barbara Christmas, director of the state's largest teacher group, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said many schools seeking to obtain the awards are already working on academic improvement plans.
"This is a way to get rewarded for it," she said. "The thing I hear the most from teachers is it really causes the staff to become cohesive, to work together."
Mrs. Schrenko said that it also stresses accountability.
"It makes them put in writing some measurable goal," she said. "Everybody seems to know in pay-for-performance schools what they are striving for."
Gregg Kenyon, a spokesman for Mr. Millner's campaign, said his candidate's merit pay plan would be much larger in scope than the current state program.
Individual teachers would be eligible, and Mr. Millner wants to spend $472 million over four years on the bonuses, as opposed to the $6.7 million paid out by the state last year.
Ms. Christmas is skeptical. Many teacher organizations oppose the idea of individualized merit pay, claiming school administrators would subjectively dole out the money to their cronies.
"The logical question to ask is, how are you going to do it?' she said.
Local schools that will participate in the merit pay program include:
-- Waynesboro Elementary School in Burke County
-- Martinez Elementary School in Columbia County
-- Thomson Middle School in McDuffie County.
-- Glenn Hills High School, Glenn Hills Middle School, Goshen Elementary School, Meadowbrook Elementary School, Spirit Creek Middle School in Richmond County.