OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Evidence from a privately funded merit pay plan in elementary schools in Arkansas suggest the idea is worth trying, a University of Arkansas education policy expert said Tuesday.

``This is a promising strategy. It's worth trying and evaluating rigorously,'' Gary Ritter told a House committee in its first meeting on merit pay, which is being pushed by House Speaker Lance Cargill, R-Harrah.

Ritter said a pilot project at elementary schools in Little Rock showed increases in math scores. He also said teachers, according to a survey, reported having a positive work environment. Teachers in the project made bonuses of up to $11,000.

``There is some evidence that it can be useful, but not overwhelming evidence yet,'' he said of the use of merit pay to improve student achievement.

Cargill said Ritter's testimony contradicts many myths surrounding merit pay, or performance pay, including a charge that such systems create ``negative competition'' that hurts collaboration among teachers.

``Whatever performance pay system we develop in Oklahoma, it's clear that the days of one-size-fits-all pay raises are over,'' he said.

Tuesday's hearing was the first of five that will run through Oct. 9. The next, set for Sept. 11, will include testimony from school officials and teacher organizations.

The hearings are being conducted by the House Education Committee. ``With these hearings, we're simply trying to develop a plan that pays teachers as professionals,'' said Rep. Tad Jones, R-Claremore, committee chairman.

Roy Bishop, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said Ritter indicated merit pay ``won't work if this is the only way to give salary increases.''

``The program shouldn't be used to get us to the regional average in teacher salaries,'' Bishop said. ``It's been our stand all along that the elected leadership of this state made a commitment to get us to the regional average this year. Right now, we are over $1,000 below that average and for them to abandon that plan and to discuss this issue is not acceptable to us.''

He said various merit pay programs around the country have ``collapsed under their own weight'' because lawmakers did not appropriate enough money to create a fair system.

``Our biggest concern is the speaker in this case is not keeping his promise of getting us to the regional average. We'll be glad to talk about this type of program when we get there.''