Kevin Falcon's idea of rewarding good teachers sounds as appealing as fingernails on the blackboard to the union representing B.C.'s teachers. The proposal from the B.C. Liberal leadership candidate was floated as one of his big ideas, something that would define a Falcon government should he win the BC Liberal leadership on Feb. 26.
Maybe because it came from Mr. Falcon - who carries a reputation as a conservative firebrand - the idea was promptly dismissed by some as a lunatic, right-wing scheme to start a war with the teachers' union.
It is not too right-wing for U.S. President Barack Obama, whose Race for the Top education reform program has sparked a number of merit pay schemes across the U.S. And Mr. Falcon's model is a program launched by Australia's new Labour government.
The scheme is polarizing, absolutely, but shouldn't be dismissed on the basis that the BC Teachers' Federation doesn't like it. Because it is possible teachers could be brought on board.
In the U.S., Tennessee and Delaware have moved ahead on pay for performance after their unions signed on to the plan. Those states have reaped big financial gains under the Obama plan.
Other states have seen changes stymied by labour unrest - Florida schools saw huge numbers of teachers stage a "sick-out" last month, protesting the loss of tenure. But, present merit pay as an opportunity to recognize the importance of teaching as a profession, and you have something educators can rally around.
Australia moved slowly, bringing teachers along. The teachers' unions initially opposed the idea, but a recent editorial in the Australian Teacher Magazine shows attitudes have changed: "Although there is much to be worked out in these pay schemes, it is encouraging that teachers in public and independent schools are taking up the challenge with their employers. For far too long, highly-skilled teachers have been frustrated by rigid career structures that ignore the exceptional work they do."
In one bargaining unit in Australia, teachers proposed two new levels of pay - accomplished and expert. Teachers could apply to be assessed and those who attain expert status would be paid at least twice the rate of an entry-level teacher. The response from government and the education minister was positive.
The results of pay for performance have been mixed in the U.S., and if there is a lesson there, it is that merit pay needs to be part of a larger package of reforms. One of the central criticisms is that in the U.S., when merit is measured according to standardized test scores of students, teachers aren't fairly judged. Mr. Falcon says his system will measure several factors, including peer evaluation and parental input, so that the teacher in a well-equipped school in West Vancouver doesn't have an automatic edge over the one in a remote first nations community where students face endemic barriers to learning.
The pros and cons of the proposal aside, what really jumps out is that a BC Liberal leadership candidate is talking about education at all.
The Liberal leadership campaign still has seven weeks to go, but so far it has been dominated by the past. The candidates have focused on the harmonized sales tax, the BC Rail legal bills, the future of the carbon tax - one nuanced mea culpa after another about the Gordon Campbell government.
Mr. Falcon is the first to launch a debate about social policy that looks into the future. Christy Clark, who promised to run on a "family first" agenda, says she'll have her own policies to roll out in the coming weeks.
But Mr. Falcon only gets to make his changes if he wins the leadership on Feb. 26. So this proposal only matters if it helps him win.
His natural base in the BC Liberal coalition is with the more conservative end of the spectrum, and provoking the teachers' union isn't going to hurt him there.
But to turn this into a broader appeal - especially from more centrist Liberals - he will have to follow through and show that his education reforms are realistic and have depth. Education is the second-biggest consumer of tax dollars in B.C. - the K-12 sector will cost $5.8-billion this year - and any serious reform will have significant financial implications.
A first step might be to take another page from Australia's playbook. Faced with stiff opposition from their teachers' unions to the notion of merit-based pay, the federal education department commissioned a poll of the nation's teachers in 2008. It turned out that 70 per cent of teachers actually liked the idea.