updated 10/24/2006 11:19:57 AM ET 2006-10-24T15:19:57

The first federal bonuses to reward teachers who raise student test scores have gone to four of Ohio’s biggest, poorest and most academically challenged districts — where teacher pay is already well above the state average.

The bonuses, totaling $20 million over five years, were announced Monday, just two weeks before the challenging election for Republicans. They were the first of 16 state grants that the Bush administration is doling out this year, which will total $42 million. South Carolina also is to receive grants but the other states that will benefit haven’t been announced.

The government hopes the money will help counter what Education Secretary Margaret Spellings called a “dirty little secret” in American education, that the most experienced teachers often teach in the least challenging classrooms.

The money is a reward for teachers “when you put yourself on the line every day and teach in some of the nation’s most challenging schools and get great results,” Spellings said Monday.

Spellings said the approaching election had no bearing on the timing of the initial grants. The grant application process began in May, and the review was done in the early fall, officials said. Congress approved the program last year.

Democrats say it's about votes
Democrats hope to regain control of the House, especially in light of the ongoing congressional page scandal.

Ohio Democrats are poised to retake the governor’s office after 16 years of GOP control, and two-term Republican Sen. Mike DeWine is in a tight race with Democratic challenger Sherrod Brown.

Brown called the announcement “cynical politics at its worst.”

Schools in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus and Toledo will share the Ohio grants.

Teacher pay in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus is well above the state average of $50,772. The average teacher salary in Toledo, which has the best academic standing of the four districts, is $49,859, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Education.

The money will help districts reward experienced teachers who train younger colleagues as well as provide incentive for schools to boost their test scores, said Ohio state schools superintendent Susan Tave Zelman.

“This is more than pay for performance,” Zelman said Monday. “This is about making the teaching profession more valued and honored.”

NEA opposed to grants
The National Education Association said Monday that grants are unnecessary and duplicate existing programs. The union called on the government to put money into underfunded programs created by Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative.

The president of the Columbus teachers’ union said she supported the grants because they would help expand existing programs negotiated by the union that reward both individual teachers and entire school staffs for helping students improve.

“Nobody is punished if they don’t make the gains,” said Rhonda Johnson, president of the Columbus Education Association. “You’re not losing any pay, you’re only gaining pay when you show you’ve made gains.”

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