The Baltimore school system is paying bonuses to teachers and administrators at struggling schools that reduce suspensions, drawing criticism from union leaders who say the program could provide a financial incentive to ignore problems and jeopardize school safety.
In addition to cutting down on suspensions for nonviolent incidents, the program pays bonuses for helping to reduce truancy and absenteeism.
The school system has moved away from zero-tolerance discipline policies — a nationwide trend aimed at disciplining students in school rather than keeping them out through suspensions, which have risen in Baltimore over the past two years.
But the effort has been contentious as city educators grapple with using out-of-school suspensions only as a last resort while maintaining a safe learning environment.
Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said she fears that the bonuses could exacerbate the problem of educators feeling pressure to keep suspension numbers down, sometimes at the expense of maintaining order in the classroom.
"I'm worried about the safety of our teachers," English said. "When you offer a bonus for something like that, you are putting a price on what's going to happen around safety in a school. Money changes people."
The program has doled out bonuses ranging from $5,000 to $9,500 to 72 teachers and assistant principals and $3,000 to two principals.
"We understand this program is controversial," said Tisha Edwards, chief of staff for the school system. "But we have consistently said in this administration that kids need to be in school, and this program supports our theory of action."
The program launched in January 2012 using $695,000 in federal Race to the Top funds that Baltimore received from the state to attract and retain quality teachers and administrators in the state's worst schools.
The bonus program only pays out to teachers with satisfactory evaluations and attendance rates. Teachers also had to agree to return to their schools the following year.
Some outside education experts cautioned against a rush to judgment about the financial incentives, saying they could encourage teachers to learn the reasons behind a child's bad behavior.
"It's really hard work to take out time to figure out what's going on in a child's head, and anything that jump-starts that is a good thing," said Jane Sundius, director of education and youth development programs at the Open Society Institute in Baltimore.
"In the beginning, a teacher may not want to suspend a student for the money," she said. "But if they're not doing anything to change the child's behavior, they'll decide very quickly that it's not worth it."
Edwards acknowledged that city educators have struggled with the changes, but pointed out that test data show the achievement of students who are not in school lags their peers.
For example, students who attended school regularly scored 22 percentage points higher in math and 17 percentage points higher in reading on the 2012 Maryland School Assessments. Out-of-school suspensions are also tied to high dropout rates and low graduation rates.
"We've had this conversation every year," Edwards said. "It's a tension all the time. We just have to keep working at it."
English said that while she doesn't support using suspension as a first resort, a string of school violence in recent months served as a painful reminder that "there are some children who need more help than teachers can give."
English said she believes teachers across the district are under-reporting incidents, even "hard offenses," such as physical abuse, that trigger automatic suspensions.
"To me, verbal abuse is worse," English said. "The reality is that you cannot get away with these things when you go out in society. We're setting children up for failure when there are no real consequences for this behavior."
Targets are set