Newark teachers overwhelmingly endorse new contract that boosts salaries, ends merit pay

Newark teachers on Monday overwhelmingly endorsed a new five-year contract that boosts their salaries and abolishes “merit pay” — a controversial policy that awarded bonuses and raises to teachers based partly on student test scores.

The contract was ratified by about 93.5% of the Newark Teachers Union members who voted Monday. About 890 people cast ballots, or roughly one-quarter of the union’s members.

“The YES’s have it, and we have ratified the contract!” union officials said in an email to members Monday evening, adding that members had traveled to the union headquarters to vote despite road closures caused by the MTV Video Music Awards taking place in downtown Newark. “So much for the falsehood that teachers don’t care about their union or their contract.”

The contract, which extends through 2024, will raise teacher salaries by an average of about 3.1% per year. Teachers with advanced degrees will jump to a higher pay scale — a return to a more traditional salary system like the one the district eliminated in 2012, when officials argued that teachers’ pay should be determined by their performance rather than how many degrees they attained.

With pay now decoupled from performance, teachers will once again earn annual raises regardless of their ratings, which are based on classroom observations and student test scores. (The district still has discretion to block pay increases for “performance and/or disciplinary reasons.”) And top-rated teachers will no longer collect $5,000 bonuses. 

The union celebrated those changes as a victory over self-described reformers, who had insisted that merit pay would reward top-performing teachers while nudging poor performers to leave.

“This contract removes the last vestiges of corporate reform from the district,” union president John Abeigon said in a note to members. “This contract is a message to our enemies that your evil is not welcome in Newark or any other public schools.”

The new contract also gives teachers more planning time, a later return from summer break, and more money to offset the cost of classroom supplies and graduate courses. It also hikes the pay of veteran teachers and those who work after school or over the summer.

The contract is the first under Roger León, a veteran Newark educator who became superintendent last year after the state returned control of the district to Newark’s school board.

The district has not said how much the raises and other provisions will cost. The school board is expected to vote on the contract Tuesday. If approved, it will replace a three-year contract that expired in June.

In 2012, Newark became the first district in New Jersey — and among the few in the nation — to link teachers’ pay to their classroom performance. Under the contract approved that year, only teachers with satisfactory or better ratings could earn raises, and top-rated teachers took home bonuses.

Teachers unions have traditionally opposed performance pay, arguing that it forces teachers to compete for higher pay and relies on suspect rating systems. But Newark union members agreed to the merit-pay system because it came with millions of dollars in back pay funded by Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook co-founder who spent $100 million bankrolling changes to the Newark school system.

Over time, the district had to scale back the bonuses as the private money dried up. And while most of Newark’s top-rated educators choose to keep teaching in the district, researchers could not definitively link their high retention rate to the incentives. 

All the while, many teachers remained suspicious of the evaluation system that determined who received bonuses and raises.

“The various salary increases were kind of a joke because everyone saw them as being so very subjective,” said Gregory Holtz, a drama teacher at East Side High School. “It just seemed like a shell game.”

The new contract calls for the creation of a committee to develop a new teacher-evaluation system, according to union documents.

Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said the new contract “represents the collapse of promising reform.” Her organization, a research and policy group that supports merit pay, recently published a report praising Newark’s evaluation and performance-pay systems.

“Newark put itself on the national stage for changes that were being made in the interest of kids,” Walsh said. “Now it’s reverting back to the status quo.”

Despite the overwhelming support for the contract among members who voted, not all teachers were pleased. Some noted that some teachers who missed out on raises prior to 2012 have still never received them. Others worried about the rising cost of health benefits. (Abeigon said he will continue pressing the district on both issues.)

“There are some things that are very positive in this,” said Al Moussab, a history teacher at East Side. “But I hesitate to say overall this is going to be good.”