Governor Christie Hopes Newark Teachers Bonuses Will Serve as Model For the State

Leslie Brody | The Record

Governor Christie on Friday called for schools across New Jersey and the nation to emulate the performance-pay provisions in Newark’s new teachers’ contract, but some skeptics were asking how other districts could afford to follow suit.

Governor Chris Christie
Governor Chris Christie

About $50 million of a 2010 gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg helped pay for provisions in the five-year contract, including higher base salaries for all Newark teachers plus annual raises for teachers who are rated well under a new evaluation system. The contract, which the Newark Teachers’ Union ratified Wednesday, also includes additional bonuses that could add up to $12,500 annually for teachers deemed “highly effective” in the most struggling schools and hard-to-staff subjects.

The deal was hailed by many education advocates as one of the boldest performance pay plans in the country. Christie acknowledged that, in the next few years, other districts would likely need outside donors to finance such incentives.

“There are lots of people who have benefitted from the greatness of public education in this country who want it to be great again for everybody and are willing to use their money … to give back,” he said. “But in the long term, this is a role government should play, incentivizing good teachers to be excellent.”

Speaking in a Newark elementary school gymnasium, Christie touted a collaboration with the American Federation of Teachers and said he hoped other unions would agree to performance pay, rather than salaries guided mostly by longevity.

“If they don’t, they will become dinosaurs,” he said.

The New Jersey Education Association, which represents the vast majority of districts in the state, was quick to argue that merit pay undermines collegiality and fails to boost achievement. A spokesman for the union, Steve Wollmer, also questioned how Newark’s bonuses could continue after the Facebook money runs out, but Chris Cerf, the state education commissioner, said the rewards would be sustainable through public funds.

The NJEA has also balked at another key point of the Newark contract – putting teachers on panels to help review their peers, with administrators getting the final say.

“We don’t feel it is appropriate for people within the same bargaining unit to be evaluating each other,” Wollmer said.

In Paterson, where contract negotiations have been at an impasse, the union rejected a merit-pay proposal. Peter Tirri, president of the Paterson Education Association, said his members didn’t believe rewards would be given out fairly. “Nobody is going to see that money unless they’re the cousin of the principal,” he said.

Three North Jersey superintendents said performance pay was a worthy idea if it is implemented fairly, but they didn’t see how they could afford it.

“With 2 percent caps [on tax levy increases], you’re looking at redistributing pools of money in order to put in some merit system,” said Christopher Nagy, superintendent of the Northern Valley Regional School District. “Right now everybody is running very lean.”

Many educators will be watching closely to see whether performance pay leads to student progress, said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools. “Everybody is blown away by the fact it’s happening in Newark first,” she said. 

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