The Prince William County school system plan to institute a merit pay program in some of its schools may have hit a snag. The Federal Department of Education provided the school system with an $11.1 million grant to pay for the five-year Teacher Incentive Performance Award pilot initiative, but it turns out that the taxpayers will still end up footing some of the bill.

At a school board meeting, Prince William County officials found out that the school system will have to pay 20 percent of the program’s cost the first year. Then the percentage the school system pays will go up 20 percent every year until it is taking care of 80 percent of the tab in the 2015-2016 school year.

The idea is that the school system should demonstrate its ability to continue to fund the program beyond the life of the grant. Unfortunately, school board members who were so keen on the merit pay program didn’t realize when they voted for it that taxpayer money was going to have to pay for some of the program in the near term.

This news comes in the midst of a poor economy and a sour outlook for the school system’s budget. It was cut $25.6 million from last year. At the same time, enrollment increased by 2,460 students.

While it looked like this experiment in merit pay was going to be free for county schools, the reality is that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The taxpayers must pony up.

For those that don’t remember, the merit pay program is a system where well-performing teachers will get extra compensation for their efforts in the classroom. Nobody’s salary would be affected negatively by the program, but some teachers will end up making more money than their peers. The program is planned only for the poorest schools in the system. The hope is that by offering merit pay, teachers will be inspired and student achievement will rise as a result.

The only “question” left now is how willing are taxpayers to start paying for this experiment in the near term? Everybody thought the monetary burden was going to be delayed, but instead it’s immediate, and in a tough economic time, painful.

It is generally recognized that something must be done to help students in the poorest and lowest performing school systems. Merit pay is just one experiment that is being conducted in an effort to improve the quality at such schools. Eventually, if they are to have a real chance of succeeding, taxpayers at the local level are going to have to pay. Of course, since the grant came from federal funds, the taxpayers are already paying, but the impact is less immediate.

If merit pay is effective, then it might be worth the cost. If it’s not, then the county could just be throwing money away. Time will tell which outcome is true.

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