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Parents across Idaho will now play a role in whether or not their child's teacher gets a raise.

Teacher bonuses in more than two dozen school districts statewide will depend to some degree on how well they can engage parents throughout the year, as part of new education changes signed into law earlier this year.

The laws championed by public schools chief Tom Luna carry sweeping changes for Idaho's public schools that include phasing in laptops for high school teachers and students, while requiring online courses.

School districts and public charter schools were also required to develop plans to reward employees who go above and beyond. The teacher pay-for-performance bonuses could be based on a variety of factors, including improved test scores and attendance rates.

A database compiled by the state Department of Education shows schools districts have adopted a mixture of criteria, giving teachers points for everything from student attendance to graduation rates and writing assessments.

The result: A laboratory of pay-for-performance methods in a state that has long debated whether teacher pay should be tied to things like student test scores.

At least 29 school districts statewide have since developed merit pay plans based, at least partly, on parental involvement.

In the central Idaho countryside, Challis schools have set a goal that teachers make contact with the parents of their students at least twice every three months.

"We're a really little town in the middle of nowhere, parents are pretty involved in what's going on, but we wanted to get them more involved in the academic side of the school," said Challis Superintendent Colby Gull.

Of the two required contacts, one can be general, such as a note sent home with every student in their class, while the other contact must be personal, where a parent is informed specifically about their student. That personal point of contact can be as simple as a teacher running into a parent in town.

"In Challis, that happens every time a teacher goes to the grocery store," Gull said.

And that chance meeting would go toward the teacher's merit pay goals.

"As long as they're talking about what's going on in the classroom and the parent is informed about their student," Gull said.

In southern Idaho, up to 70 percent of the potential bonus available to employees at Wendell High School will be based on attendance at parent-teacher conferences. More than 40 percent of parents have to attend the meetings in order for Wendell teachers to earn the maximum bonus and that goal was exceeded this fall.

In the nearby farming and ranching town of Gooding, the school district has a similar plan for seventh through 12th grades, with 25 percent of the teacher bonus based on parent attendance at three conferences throughout the academic year.

In northern Idaho, the Kendrick School District will also base the merit pay bonuses for teachers on how well they involve parents. .

"I think it's important to include parents, to engage parents," said Kendrick Superintendent Calvin Spangler.

Some critics of Luna's education changes have questioned the larger role for moms and dads. Their concerns include: Will an educator be afraid to discipline a student because their parents will now have a say in teacher job evaluations, under the education changes.

Spangler counters that since parents will already have input in job evaluations under Luna's plan, why not include them in the merit pay portion.

"If they're going to be involved, we might as well get them involved right now," Spangler said.

But how involved parents are may also be outside the control of teachers to some degree, said Penni Cyr, president of the Idaho Education Association.

"Idaho teachers know that parents are very, very important in the education of their child," Cyr said. "But there also factors that are outside of a teacher's control. So is it reasonable for holding teacher responsible for getting parents to a conference or to withhold pay because parents can't attend conferences for whatever reason?"

About 50 school districts and charter schools have opted not to develop their own pay-for-performance systems but rather to comply with the state's plan, which bases bonuses on standardized test scores. In the 105 districts and charter schools that have developed or are working on their own merit pay plans, teachers will still have to meet statewide goals in order to receive their pay-for-performance bonus.

The bonuses will be paid out during the next fiscal year, which starts in July 2012.

The statewide teachers union has criticized Luna's plan, which shifts money from school employee pay and benefits to help pay for the education changes. The reduced money for employee salaries has resulted in fewer teachers and larger class sizes in some school districts.

This year, the state is shifting $14.7 million in employee pay and benefits to increase the minimum teacher pay to $30,000, restore salary increases for teachers who further their education and pay for high school students who graduate early to earn college credits.

Under a proposed budget for next year, Luna wants to use about $20 million from Idaho's projected budget surplus to replace the funding that would continue to be taken from salaries to pay for new education changes, such as the teacher merit pay.

While critics of the funding formula have argued that Idaho is reducing money for all teacher salaries to award bonuses to a few, that has yet to happen and the projected surplus could allow the state to avoid that altogether, Luna spokeswoman Melissa McGrath said.

"No money has been shifted from salaries toward pay-for-performance, and our proposal for next year would not make that necessary because of recent revenue projections," McGrath said.

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Jessie L. Bonner can be reached at http://twitter.com/jessiebonner

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