CHICAGO — The nation's largest teachers' union is considering accepting the increasingly popular view that teachers' pay should be linked with how well they have been teaching, instead of how long.
Nearly 10,000 delegates to the National Education Association meeting here were deciding Wednesday what strategies local units should take when school boards propose bonus-pay plans in collective bargaining. This marks the first time the NEA has formally considered the divisive bonus-pay issue at its annual meeting.
Bonus-pay critics, who are expected to heat up the debate, reject such plans as arbitrary and unfair to teachers who have unusually difficult students. Backers, which include some state union leaders, say rewarding good teachers would bring the profession respect, top-notch candidates and higher salaries for all.
"I don't know what's going to happen, but it's going to be a good debate and it's going to be a close debate," NEA President Bob Chase said in an interview ahead of the vote. "The fact is a lot of our local associations have been willing to look at alternative pay schedules on top of existing plans."
A handful of states offer rewards that teachers can use for computers or training, although not for their own pay. But recent demands by business leaders and politicians for higher standards often include calls for teacher cash incentives. Some form of reward has even been proposed by the two leading presidential candidates.
"Pay-for-performance" plans usually give teachers higher salaries or bonuses if they're judged to be good at what they do, accept extra or difficult assignments, mentor others on how to become more effective, or more controversially, have students who score higher on tests.
Many teachers say that's unfair if they have students suffering from abuse, neglect or other ills that they can't affect or control. But some, such as New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, still propose bonuses based on test scores. Cincinnati last month became the first public district to replace its pay-by-seniority scale with pay based on performance.
"We need to be ready to deal with that," Chase said.
The key proposal before the delegates would allow the national group to at least help local units do the research needed to decide whether to accept a plan in a contract.
In some views, the NEA, representing more than half of the nation's 3.1 million teachers, is taking baby steps. Supporters of stronger plans — some of which tie student test scores to teacher pay — blame low teacher salaries on union contracts that base pay on how many years a teacher has spent in the classroom or whether he or she has a master's degree.
Traditionally, teachers have been wary of reward systems, fearing that a principal may keep fattening the paycheck of a favored teacher or dock teachers each time a child brings home a "D."
"Can you imagine paying a doctor by who she saved or who he saved?" said Randi Weingarten, president of the New York Federation of Teachers. "Who would an oncologist see?"
She said raising base pay to attract better teachers is the answer: "We need to say to prospective hires, 'You can make a living wage.' "
A report released Tuesday by the 1 million-member American Federation of Teachers said teachers still get paid less than other professionals. In the 1998-99 school year, the average teacher made $40,574.
The union compared that with the average pay in 1999 for other white-collar jobs: engineers earned $68,294 on average; computer systems analysts, $66,782; lawyers, $69,104.
On the Net: National Education Association: www.nea.org
American Federation of Teachers: www.aft.org