Newark’s Teacher Merit Pay Plan Finds Unlikely Union Ally

Newark is the latest New Jersey district to consider implementing a merit pay system for eachers. The issue made an appearance during contract negotiations between the city and the Newark Teachers Union, with the city asking to bar poorly performing teachers from receiving automatic annual salary bumps. Currently, raises are based on the number of years a teacher has been in service in Newark.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the city is looking to implement a four-tier teacher effectiveness scale, with only those who are rated in the top two tiers – either "effective," or "highly effective," – being eligible for an increase in pay. According to union president Joe Del Grosso, those in the bottom two tiers – "partially effective," and "ineffective," – would be barred from increases that were previously tied to seniority. Teachers in the bottom two categories would still be eligible for raises that aren't tied to effectiveness or years of experience.

Some think that a compromise on this issue would be groundbreaking for a state where union protections are considered some of the strongest in the country. The state's largest teachers union has already expressed opposition to the proposal.

Newark's upcoming fight with the union is a reflection of the relationship between the government and organized labor in New Jersey since reform-minded governor Republican Chris Christie began his term. But what is surprising is that Christie's continuing efforts to reduce the power of the unions might have somewhat of a reluctant supporter in Del Grosso, who has expressed his willingness to consider merit pay proposals and other measures to weaken the impact of seniority in promotions and raises.

"It's been used in the private sector effectively, and it's something that we should try to use effectively here," Mr. Del Grosso said of merit pay. "I see no reason for a union to not want pay for their members."

Mr. Del Grosso, however, said his approval hinged on the district's agreement to include peer review—allowing teachers to observe and mentor each other—in a new evaluation system. "We would have a safeguard," he said.

The Newark negotiations are being handled on the government side by Christie appointee Chris Cerf, who is serving as New Jersey's Education Commissioner. Both Cerf and the district superintendent Cami Anderson declined to comment on Del Grosso's remarks.

The changes would codify a practice that is already legal statewide but not uniformly applied: the withholding of a "step increase," or a boost on a predetermined pay scale that generally corresponds with the number of years worked. For the district, it would likely mean fewer appeals and messy legal battles. Teachers, meanwhile, could take some comfort in having their annual grade influenced by a fellow teacher.

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