Wait and see

After weeks of Sandy-induced delay and reports of discontent among union membership, Newark teachers approved a “groundbreaking” new contract Wednesday,1,767 to 1,088. The new deal includes bonuses for high performance, an important first step for performance-related teacher pay in a state that has historically been a bastion of union strength and intransigence. Its value from a reform perspective, however, is mostly symbolic: Heavily subsidized by private donors (see Zuckerberg, Mark) despite Newark’s already-breathtaking per-pupil spending, the agreement would offer yearly awards of up to $5,000 to educators rated “highly effective”—a designation that would factor in fellow teachers’ evaluations. A traditional compensation option would also be available to teachers who prefer the status quo: hardly a transformative or replicable model.

The new Newark contract is hardly a transformative or replicable model.

Even still, approval was far from certain: Despite the strong support of media-darling Mayor Cory Booker and the blessing of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, many rank-and-file union members expressed strong reservations about the deal—one caucus within the union even warned that “it means indentured servitude for education workers.”

The union membership was right to take the deal. As Weingarten said, it is “a win for students, a win for teachers and a win for Newark.” National and local AFT chiefs deserve plenty of credit for making it happen: Reformers often gloss how challenging it must be for open-minded union leaders to persuade teachers to overcome decades of dogmatic resistance to the reform agenda. Hot on the heels of union-backed (and consequently tempered) tenure reforms at the state level, it’s tempting to buy into a narrative of incremental progress enabled by collaboration with Jersey’s powerful teacher unions. Given the price tag in Newark and the concessions tenure reform required in Trenton, however, changes along those lines may take decades to materialize.

No, we’ll need to wait for the real significance of the Newark deal to emerge: If merit pay can drive real improvement in one of the state’s lower-performing districts, it will become politically untenable for unions to resist compensation reform in districts statewide. If not, the contract may prove to be just another expensive false start.

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