Merit pay was the heart of a ‘revolutionary’ teachers contract in Newark. Now the Cory Booker-era policy is disappearing.

In 2012, Newark teachers agreed to a controversial new contract that linked their pay to student achievement — a stark departure from the way most teachers across the country are paid.

The idea was to reward teachers for excellent performance, rather than how many years they spent in the district or degrees they attained. Under the new contract, teachers could earn bonuses and raises only if they received satisfactory or better ratings, and advanced degrees would no longer elevate teachers to a higher pay scale.

The changes were considered a major victory for the so-called “education reform” movement, which sought to inject corporate-style accountability and compensation practices into public education. And they were championed by an unlikely trio: New Jersey’s Republican governor, the Democratic-aligned leader of the nation’s second-largest teachers union, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who had allocated half of his $100 million gift to Newark’s schools to fund a new teachers contract.

“In my heart, this is what I was hoping for: that Newark would lead a transformational change in education in America,” then-Gov. Chris Christie said in Nov. 2012 after the contract was ratified.

Seven years later, those changes have been erased.

Last week, negotiators for the Newark Teachers Union and the district struck a deal for a new contract that scraps the bonuses for top-rated teachers, allows low-rated teachers to earn raises, and gives teachers with advanced degrees more pay. It also eliminates other provisions of the 2012 contract, which were continued in a follow-up agreement in 2017, including longer hours for low-performing schools.

“All vestiges of corporate reform have been removed,” declared a union document describing the deal.

The new contract highlights the waning popularity of many ideas associated with the education reform movement, including performance-based pay, and the success of educators across the country in demanding higher pay for all teachers — not just top-performers.

But the downfall of the 2012 contract — once touted as “groundbreaking” and “revolutionary” — also reflects conditions unique to Newark. The contract relied on a finite pool of private money, which helped fund the changes and convince skeptical teachers to sign on. And many educators remained wary of the contract even after it was approved, with a majority of teachers saying in a 2015 survey that they did not consider the new compensation system to be fair.

“It was a rigged system,” said a Newark high school teacher, who declined to give his name Wednesday as he left the union headquarters where officials were answering members’ questions about the contract deal. The new contract, he said, “is a step in trying to make whole the damage that was done to the pocketbooks and the hearts and souls of Newark teachers.”

The 2012 contract was forged under extraordinary circumstances. Zuckerberg had made clear to Christie and Cory Booker, the former Newark mayor who is now a U.S. senator and presidential candidate, that he wanted a contract that would reward high-performing teachers and make it easier to remove low-performers. With Newark schools under state control at the time, Christie appointed a hard-charging superintendent, Cami Anderson, to carry out the plan.

The resulting contract prevented teachers from earning yearly salary increases if they received unsatisfactory ratings under a new evaluation system based on students’ test scores and classroom observations. It also established $5,000 bonuses for teachers deemed “highly effective,” who could earn additional rewards if they taught hard-to-staff subjects, like math and science, and worked in struggling schools.

Teachers unions have traditionally opposed performance-based or “merit pay” systems, arguing that they force teachers to compete for bonuses and rely on evaluation systems that many educators distrust. But Newark’s union agreed to the system in exchange for $31 million in back pay — funded by Zuckerberg — for two years when teachers worked without raises. Many teachers suspected that if they didn’t accept the deal, the billionaire’s gift would be snatched away.

“We had an opportunity to get Zuckerberg’s money,” Joseph Del Grosso, Newark’s former union chief, said at the time, according to Dale Russakoff’s 2015 book “The Prize.” “Otherwise, it would go to charter schools. I decided I shouldn’t feed and clothe the enemy.”

The contract’s changes were symbolically significant and attracted national attention — but they directly affected fewer teachers than some realized.

About a third of Newark teachers took advantage of an option that let them remain on the traditional pay scale. And fewer than 200 teachers per year — about 7% of the current teaching force — received the “highly effective” bonuses, while a similar number of low-rated teachers were prevented from earning raises, according to union and former district officials.

It’s also not clear that the bonuses have convinced high-performing teachers to remain in the district — which was one of the stated reasons for offering merit pay. 

Newark does retain almost all of its top-rated teachers: In the 2016-17 school year, 97% of teachers who were rated “highly effective” the previous year stayed in the district, compared to just 54% of teachers rated “ineffective.” 

Yet researchers hired by the district have said they could not find “strong evidence” that the new pay system is the reason that top-rated teachers decide to keep working in the district. In a 2016 report, the researchers said it was possible that differences between teachers who get high versus low ratings were leading to the different retention rates — not the incentives offered by the district.

Meanwhile, as the Zuckerberg money dried up, the district was forced to discontinue the bonuses for working in hard-to-staff subjects and struggling schools.

At the same time, clashes erupted over the implementation of the contract. For instance, the contract replaced higher salaries for teachers with master’s degrees or doctorates with a one-time $20,000 bonus for teachers who completed approved graduate programs. But the union complained — and an arbitrator agreed — that the Anderson administration violated the terms of the contract when it unilaterally approved a single graduate program.

“Cami Anderson, immediately after that contract was signed, acted in complete bad faith,” said Randi Weingarten, the American Federation of Teachers leader who helped negotiate the 2012 contract, during an interview earlier this year. “It was a complete catastrophe.”

Newark looks very different today than it did in 2012. The Zuckerberg money is gone, the state no longer controls the district, and a veteran Newark educator — Roger León — is now superintendent.

Under those conditions, the district agreed to a heap of contract provisions long sought by the union. Besides ending the performance-pay measures, the five-year deal also raises teachers’ salaries by about 3% per year. It gives teachers more planning time, a later return from summer break, and more money to help pay for classroom supplies and graduate courses. Teachers will also earn more for working after school or over the summer, and for spending 20 or more years in the district.

District and union officials have not commented publicly on the deal or said how much it will cost. The union’s 4,000 or so members will vote on the contract later this month.

Shavar Jeffries, who led the Newark school board in 2012 and is now president of the national advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform said he is happy to see teachers get more money under the new agreement. But he said it is disappointing that teachers’ performance will no longer automatically influence their pay — a disconnect, he argued, that many families do not support.

“There’s almost no parent in the city of Newark,” he said, “who thinks that there shouldn’t be a relationship between pay and whether you’re actually doing a good job for babies each and every day in the classroom.”

This story was updated to include the findings of a 2016 study of Newark’s pay system.