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At Epic Schools, Teacher Bonuses Soar While Student Achievement Lags

Clifton Adcock-Oklahoma Watch

Teachers at Epic Charter Schools are some of the highest paid in the state. They are also some of the lowest paid in the state.

The wild swings in teacher compensation at the state’s largest online charter school are due to an unconventional program that allows teachers to earn a bonus of up to their base salary, which would double their pay. So a teacher earning $35,000, for instance, can earn an annual bonus of up to $35,000, pushing total pay to $70,000.

Bonus pay allowed more than half of Epic’s 218 certified teachers to earn well above the average pay for public school teachers, according to Oklahoma Department of Education data for 2015-2016. But for some, the gamble didn’t pay off; they earned little or no bonus and their total compensation was less than the minimum salary required in traditional public schools.

Meanwhile, Epic, which enrolled more than 9,000 students in pre-K through 12 this year and is now the state’s 14th largest school system, has average to low school grades and hasn’t seen significant improvement in student achievement.

Epic has been using this model of performance pay — also known as merit pay —since it opened in 2011, an experiment in teacher compensation conducted using state per-pupil funds, which all charter schools receive. School administrators are proud of the program, which they say rewards educators who are willing to work harder and achieve higher student outcomes.

“(Epic’s) pay performance model is one we feel like works, and is allowing us to attract some of the most talented teachers,” said Bart Banfield, assistant superintendent of instruction for Epic.

So far, however, Epic’s use of hefty bonuses has not spread to other public schools looking to reward and recruit teachers.

Merit pay, which rewards teachers for test scores and other student outcomes, is relatively rare in Oklahoma, education groups say. Nationally, it is also uncommon, with just 3.5 percent of schools offering it, according to a 2011 report from the now-defunct National Center on Performance Incentives.

Charter schools are well-suited to experiment with merit pay because their teachers don’t typically belong to unions and the schools don’t have to follow the minimum salaries set by the Legislature. Online charter schools like Epic also don’t have the same facility and transportation costs that brick-and-mortar schools have.

Some studies have found that performance-pay systems, especially those using standardized test scores, don’t improve student performance.

High Risk, High Reward 

Public school teachers in Oklahoma are among the lowest paid in the country, earning an average of $44,921, including benefits, according to the National Education Association. The minimum starting salary for teachers in Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree is $31,600, including benefits. Educators here are clamoring for an across-the-board salary increase, and both the governor and Legislature have said it’s a priority this year.

Epic, however, pays its full-time teachers an average of $61,200, which includes all compensation, from base pay and benefits to travel stipends and bonus pay. The school’s highest paid teacher made $92,890 in 2015-2016.

At the other end of the pay scale, nearly 30 of Epic’s 132 full-time teachers earned below the state average in 2015-2016, state data shows. More than a half dozen earned below the state’s minimum salary.

Teachers traditionally see their pay increase as they spend more years in the classroom or earn an advanced degree. Epic uses neither to determine a teacher’s salary. Epic teachers’ base pay is $1,000 per regular student and $1,500 per special education student.

The bonuses are based on three components: standardized testing participation and performance, and whether students return to the school the next year, or retention. Performance bonuses are paid out three times a year.

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on a range of public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to www.oklahomawatch.org