Riding the South

The blog of Scott and Jenny Morris

Jan. 25, 2016

Merit pay

for legislators

By Jenny Morris

I’ve long been of the opinion that public office in our Southern state is the bastion of two groups: the underemployed and the egotists. A recent idea that these Siamese twins have floated is to tie public school teachers’ future pay raises to performance — not the teachers’ performance, that is, but their students’.

If nothing else, discussing the idea and bandying about the public response is a nice diversion. It will probably grant the legislators at least two more years before anyone holds them accountable for a serious answer as to why the people who educate the state’s children haven't realized any net gains in almost a decade.

In this interim for discussion, I think we should try out the idea of merit pay on a test group. We need one small enough to monitor, that receives taxpayer money, and whose actions are public enough to track.

Now who should it be ... ?

Ah, of course, the august body itself. Here’s how their performance-based pay could work: Half the Alabama legislators’ salaries would be placed in escrow at the beginning of the year. The other half would be doled out as usual.

In year one, we could keep the system simple. If the legislators complete their required tasks on schedule, with no expensive special sessions or extended days in Montgomery, the escrow would be released on the last day of business. If not, a percentage of the pay could be forfeited based on how many days extra they take to do their jobs.

In year two, and following, we should enhance the process, withholding more pay for escrow if the need arises.

Does Alabama have a crippling problem? Our legislators should be able to fix it — and forfeit some of their pay if they can’t. To be specific, how about a percentage of pay forfeited for every public office that has to close? Add to that every state trooper who is let go, and every jail that’s overcrowded. Maybe we could dock their pay a dollar for every Alabamian who lives in poverty. That would return the true meaning of “servant” to the title “public servant” as nothing else could.

But now I’m just talking crazy.

No one person or group of people can stem the effects of generations of poor decisions, unpreparedness, or genetic predisposition. One legislative session, one teacher, one school year can’t reverse a trend that has had years to build up steam. And we haven’t even addressed that most human of all traits, personal autonomy.

In every class I teach (and as a community college employee I am under the public school umbrella in Alabama), I face a range of preparedness in my students. Some come with below average IQs, some come with terminal cases of apathy, and some rarely come at all.

If I could impersonate an educational godmother and bestow one characteristic on each of them, it would be determination to succeed. Determination trumps IQ, prior schooling and family history every time. In my zeal to impart some of it to my students, I often sound more like an evangelist than an instructor. But if determination to succeed can be taught, I haven’t found the way. Maybe the legislators can show me how by example.