Skip to Content

New Money Moves

From pay to pensions, the game’s getting tougher. Here’s how educators are fighting to preserve benefits and win professional pay.

You take care of the kids, but who takes care of you? The people who prepare the next generation of Americans for the challenges of 21st century living—that’s you—are falling behind. Professionals in many other fields are benefiting from America’s economic growth, but teachers and education support professionals (ESPs) are treading water at best.

Improving compensation for educators is one of NEA’s top priorities. NEA has set a national goal of achieving starting pay of at least a living wage for all ESPs and $40,000 a year for teachers. But there are other games afoot. Some states or districts want to offer pay raises only to a minority of teachers, using “alternative compensation” plans that pit educators against each other, undermining collaborative efforts and quality teaching. Others are proposing changes in health insurance and retirement benefits that would threaten the living standards and security of our profession. If these moves haven’t come to your town yet, they may well arrive soon, so get ready.

From Pennsylvania, Florida, and Kentucky to Texas, Vermont, and Minnesota, NEA members are fighting back. The compensation game is getting harder and more complicated, but by working together, educators can win.

Take action in your own district. Visit  NEA’s Professional Pay site to learn how to plan a campaign, or just how to respond to such age-old chestnuts as “teachers get the summer off.”

Attitude Counts!

How to ask for—and get—higher pay.

By Alain Jehlen

Pennsylvania's Sherry Dellaposta stood up for higher pay.

As a deadlock on teacher contracts hung over the rural Pennsylvania Homer-Center school district, fifth-grade teacher Sherry Dellaposta started shopping out of town. “At the bank, at the post office, a lot of people said things like: ‘You teachers don’t realize that we’re not making that kind of money. You’re asking for the moon,’” she recalls.

An anti-teacher school board wanted to cut health benefits and slash starting salaries 28 percent. And Homer-Center, some 35 miles east of Pittsburgh, was not where you’d expect to find generous contracts. “Ours was a coal mining community, and the mines closed down,” explains Jane Mastro, head of the 71-member Homer-Center Education Association.

Dellaposta, a lifelong resident and coal miner’s daughter, was stung by her neighbors’ criticism. But she would answer, “I’m a professional. I worked hard for my degree, and I work hard in school. It’s not a seven- or eight-hour job. You’re always planning lessons and finding things for your bulletin boards.”

“We’ve become accustomed to making do—finding ways of providing for our students, at the expense of our own salaries. But unless we believe in and assert our own worth, we’ll never get the funding we need.”  —JUDY SCHAUBACH

Despite its economic problems, the community wanted good teachers and quality schools for its children. Voters replaced half of the school board, with the union playing a significant role. The new board and the union let an arbitrator settle their dispute. Since then, they’ve worked together to attract and hold the best teachers. Starting pay has gone from $33,270 in 1997, when the conflict began, to $43,832, one of the highest in the state. By 2009–10, starting salaries will jump to $52,012.

Homer-Center used to lose good teachers to nearby, higher-paying districts, but now the opposite is happening—it has its pick of new teachers and neighboring districts are under pressure to pay more. “Homer-Center has boosted salaries throughout the county,” says UniServ Director Robert Paskowski.

To win professional salaries, says Education Minnesota President Judy Schaubach, educators need to stand firm on what they bring to communities like Homer-Center. “People have been talking about the lack of funding for so long that we’ve lowered our expectations,” she says. “We’ve become accustomed to making do—finding ways of providing for our students, at the expense of our own salaries. But unless we believe in and assert our own worth, we’ll never get the funding we need.”

In eastern Kentucky, John Boggs had no trouble convincing his co-workers their pay was too low. He was earning just over $12,000 a year driving a school bus. “I don’t see how anybody can raise a family on what we were making,” says Boggs, head of the local ESP union and a part-time minister. “Everybody knew we deserved more.”

But knowing you’re worth more doesn’t mean you’ll demand it. “People are afraid of losing their jobs,” says local Vice President Pam Pereece. “At first, I was scared, too.” Now, she tells potential members that the union’s lawyers will protect them if they’re unfairly targeted.

Pereece and Boggs played leading roles in the support professionals’ living wage campaign last year, in which members appealed for public and school board support to bring their pay up to at least the poverty level for a family of three—$18,000 a year. Members wrote to the local newspaper and held petition drives, garnering 1,500 signatures. “People were shocked—they didn’t realize how little we were making,” says Boggs.

Even the school board didn’t fully grasp how little their ESPs earned, Boggs adds. Ultimately they won significant raises—still not up to the poverty level, but Boggs says they hope to get close this year.

“We say to the board, ‘Just be fair.’”

Take action in your own district. Visit NEA’s Professional Pay site to learn how to plan a campaign, or just how to respond to such age-old chestnuts as “teachers get the summer off.”

A Risky Alternative

Educators find the devil’s in the details in proposals to alter traditional salary schedules.

By Alain Jehlen

Art teacher Maureen Gunderson and her fellow educators in Le Center, Minnesota, thought they had a great—and fair—plan for using the state’s new alternative compensation money to improve student achievement in their small, rural town.

“We were really excited,” she says. “We thought we had designed something that could be a model for small schools.” 

Six months, five rejections, five resubmissions, and one lawsuit later, state officials reluctantly approved it—on the same day they would have been forced by a court to release records detailing why all the earlier versions of the proposal were turned down. (The lawsuit was brought by Education Minnesota, a joint affiliate of NEA and the American Federation of Teachers.)

What was the sticking point? Officials never said so in writing, but they warned in a phone call that the plan would never be approved unless the district changed the way teachers were judged to be eligible for a bonus.

Minnesota's Maureen Gunderson is under a new plan.

Le Center wanted teachers to earn most of their extra pay by working with small groups of their peers, analyzing and evaluating each other’s videotaped lessons. The state wanted teachers rated by someone at a higher level.

Minnesota is one hot spot in a national controversy over efforts to replace the traditional salary schedule with some version of alternative compensation. Districts have long paid extra for coaches and faculty advisors of clubs, and growing numbers pay stipends to teachers who become mentors. NEA local affiliates often push for extending this approach to educators who take on other types of leadership roles. There’s also support in some local and state Associations for paying teachers more if they teach in “hard-to-staff” schools—those where large numbers of students do not arrive at the schoolhouse door ready to learn. So far, though, only a few districts offer such bonuses, and they have been too small to make much difference.

Another form of incentive pay that some administrators favor is for educators in subjects where there are shortages, such as math and science. Many educators oppose this approach because it suggests that those who teach other subjects are worth less.

But the biggest conflicts are over proposals to tie teacher pay to student test scores. Most teachers say these pay systems put them at the mercy of conditions they have no control over and penalize educators who take on the toughest work. Educators also worry that such plans pit teachers against each other and keep them from working collaboratively.

There’s much talk about these so-called “pay-for-performance” plans, but after a spurt of interest in the 1980s and 1990s, not much action. University of Washington researcher Dan Goldhaber says 6 percent of districts with collective bargaining contracts and 11 percent of those without them now have pay-for-performance plans. He points out that these numbers prove that union opposition isn’t the only obstacle to implementing such pay systems.

Former National Teacher of the Year Chauncey Veatch gets disappointed with school leaders who put all their energy into devising pay-for-performance plans to the exclusion of more important issues, like class size. “When I started teaching, I had 45 eighth-graders,” he says. “That could be a deal-breaker for some new teachers.”

Earlier attempts at pay-for-performance were largely abandoned when money ran out. But recently, such plans have resurfaced. The Bush Administration is promoting these plans with $42 million in grants so far and $43 million more on the way.

One of the most widely publicized experiments is underway in Denver, under a contract with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which played a key role in designing it. Called ProComp, Denver’s system is mandatory for new hires but optional for existing educators. Teachers in ProComp don’t get yearly step increases, but they have a variety of ways to earn raises. These include “knowledge and skills” increases for advanced degrees and professional development, extra money for hard-to-fill jobs and hard-to-staff schools, and salary bumps that depend on students meeting specific goals.

Union President Kim Ursetta starts all of her presentations on the Denver plan with: “Don’t try this at home.” Why not? Because, she says, Denver has several special conditions that make its plan work, starting with money.

The agreement hinged on voter approval of an additional $25 million per year for salaries, which will be increased with inflation—enough for serious raises.

Denver also has teacher participation in the new system—five teachers chosen by the union are working on it full-time. And for salary increases tied to students meeting goals, there’s no one-size-fits-all standard. Each teacher works out the goals with the principal. If a goal turns out to be unachievable, it can be changed. A typical goal, says Ursetta, might be that 75 percent of a teacher’s students will be on grade level by the end of the year. “But in January, you look at your students’ progress and see whether that’s realistic,” she says. “If not, you might change it to 70 percent.”

On top of that, the raises triggered by students meeting goals are relatively small—the biggest increases are for “knowledge and skills.”

The Denver program was pilot-tested in 17 schools. Ursetta says teachers in the pilot schools started having a lot more informal conversations about how to help students achieve. That’s one thing that convinced her it was working.

So far, 38 percent of the district’s veteran teachers have opted in. Most of them, says Ursetta, are experienced teachers at the top of the pay scale so they could not expect much in the way of future raises from the traditional system. One was math teacher Barbara DeHaven Bennett. She originally opposed the plan, even though it would help her personally because she had many course credits worth thousands of dollars a year under ProComp. “But I’m not convinced that down the road, this will be viable,” she says. “Say you’re a third-year teacher. You have to jump through lots of hoops to get raises here. But you can go to another district and get automatic step increases. I think we will have more people leaving.”

In Florida, educators are fighting a pay-for-performance plan that specifies no more than a quarter of a district’s teachers can get extra pay—even if every teacher is a star performer. And the decision of which teachers to reward has to rest at least 50 percent on test scores.

The Florida Education Association has gone to court to stop the program. Meanwhile, some districts are turning down the money. The first was Okaloosa County. Fifth-grade teacher Karen Peek was one of the 84 percent of teachers who voted down the bonus program. “I love my job and I do the best I can every day,” she says. “You could offer me $2 million and I couldn’t do it better. Give me a raise—that would be great—but don’t imply that I am holding back and not doing the best I can now.” 

In Minnesota, the law is a compromise between the governor’s plan and the local control advocated by Education Minnesota. State bureaucrats seem to be trying to push districts towards the governor’s rigid, hierarchical program, but the law does not require it, and that’s why the Le Center teachers finally won approval of their locally developed plan.

There’s no limit to how many Le Center teachers can get the money. The program is structured to improve everybody’s teaching. Of the $2,340 maximum bonus, about $350 depends on an administrator’s evaluation.  Another $200 rides on students meeting a growth target for math scores. (The law requires some connection to test scores.) Each teacher can earn another $1,070 by taking part in the small group lesson analysis program. The rest—about $700—is based on peer evaluations.

Art teacher Gunderson says her students are already benefiting. She recently discussed a lesson with her group, and came away with practical ways to do better.

“We’re developing a learning community that wouldn’t have been there if we had someone on one level evaluating us on a lower level,” she says. “I’m really glad we fought and held our ground.”

Learn why it’s important for educators to have a say in developing plans like Minnesota’s. Read about the experience of another district .

An Unhealthy System

Rising health insurance costs aren’t limited to educators, who look to build bridges while fighting to preserve existing benefits.

By John Rosales

When teenager Osita Nwosu fell on a broken bottle while playing basketball, his mother, Rae Nwosu, didn’t flinch at rushing him to the hospital. The cut was deep.

“He was bleeding pretty badly,” says Nwosu, a secretary with Paredes Middle School in Austin, Texas. Her family has no health insurance—and is still chipping away at a payment plan for the stitches and antibiotics Osita received nearly four years ago. “It’s a bill we’re still paying,” says Nwosu of the 2003 incident.

Texas' Rae Nwosu has no family health insurance.
Nwosu had been forced to drop the health insurance plan offered by the Austin Independent School District (AISD). “It had just gotten too expensive,” she says. The AISD pays an employee-only premium of $381 for teachers and education support professionals (ESPs) to enroll in an HMO. Employees must foot the cost of insuring family members. After deductions from her $25,000 salary, Nwosu brings home about $800 a month, which barely clears the $763 cost for family coverage, leaving almost no money for other necessities.

Since dropping the plan, Osita, now 21, and his 19-year-old sister, Jena, have not had regular physicals and vaccinations. For a time, they relied on free shots and checkups from a government-sponsored mobile medical unit. Their father, also named Osita, is a self-employed cab driver who is uninsured.

Like many educators, Nwosu was the victim of pay raises that have not kept up with increases in health care costs. Over the past six years, health insurance premiums have risen 87 percent, more than four times the cumulative increase over the same period in earnings and inflation, according to the National Coalition on Health Care. Many ESPs, especially part-timers, have no coverage for themselves or their families. And for all educators, the costs are becoming prohibitive.

“A cafeteria worker I know left school for a job at [a supermarket] because of their health care benefits,” Nwosu says.  

Reducing costs and improving access to health care is one of NEA’s national priorities. But the most revolutionary change in health care is occurring on the state level as the result of a three-prong strategy that includes political activism, coalition-building, and collective bargaining. “It’s important to fuse the three,” says Mark Hage, Vermont-NEA’s director of benefit programs. “The solution to the crisis is ultimately a political one. It starts with state-based initiatives and involves all citizens.”

 Vermont-NEA has played a leadership role in reshaping the state’s health care system since the early 1990s, as part of a broader movement to improve access for everyone in the state. Most teachers now have health insurance though their school boards, which participate in a partnership between Vermont-NEA and the Vermont School Boards Insurance Trust, with coverage provided by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont. Some support staff have coverage at a reasonable cost, though others have none. 

“Every school district participates in the trust,” Hage says. “[Educators] are not out there at the mercy of the market.”

The trust was created after years of coalition-building. In 2005, Vermont–NEA and others from business, labor, government, consumer, and other community organizations formed a group named Coalition 21, with the goal of providing comprehensive lifetime health coverage for all Vermonters. Last year, some of its principles were written into legislation.

“We laid a foundation for structural reform,” Hage says.

But in other states, educators have had to fight just to maintain existing benefits. About five years ago, Texas passed a bill to contribute $1,000 towards health insurance costs for every school employee. Nwosu, who is treasurer of Education Austin, lobbied for the bill and gave testimony at committee meetings. But facing budget cuts, legislators ultimately reclaimed half of the allotment. Last year, they attempted to take the final $500 back—but just from ESPs. Nwosu and other community members fought the measure by meeting with reporters in the rotunda under the famous Texas statehouse dome.

“We got coverage statewide,” she says. “They eventually withdrew the bill.”

Lend your voice to the national call for affordable health care by contacting your lawmakers through NEA’s Legislative Action Center.


The Two Sides of Pension Plans

How Sandy Gay could lose $1,100 a month when she retires .

By Mary Ellen Flannery

After 32 years in the classroom, Sandy Gay wants to retire. She loves her job and her second-graders at Princeton Primary School in southern West Virginia, but she’s 62 years old, and she’s got a granddaughter with disabilities who needs her special care. There’s just one problem: Since she made the ill-informed decision in 1991 to switch from the state’s traditional pension plan to a much-heralded 401(k)-style “defined-contribution” plan, Gay can’t afford to.

Although West Virginia teachers voted decisively last year to return everybody to a defined-benefit plan (all teachers hired since 2005 already are enrolled in it), the move was legally challenged and a circuit court judge overturned the planned merger in January. Now, Gay can hope for a legislative solution—which is far from certain.  “[In 1991] everyone assured me the switch would be great—but those were all falsehoods!” Gay says. Meanwhile, “the years go on, and I’m getting older,” she adds.


Sandy Gay
Princeton, West Virginia
Second-grade teacher
About $45,000


Monthly benefit, if Gay retires in June*:  $1,397
Total savings since 1991:  About $96,000

What is a Defined-Contribution Plan?

These are individual, tax-deferred investment accounts funded by the employee, and often by the employer, too—with no guarantee of how much you’ll get each month at retirement. It’s up to employees to decide how the money will be invested—and many accounts do poorly. In West Virginia, for example, only 74 of the 22,000 teachers in the defined-contribution plan have accrued more than $100,000 over the course of their careers.


Monthly benefit, if Gay retires in June**:  $2,499

What is a Defined- Benefit Plan?

A traditional pension plan, usually administered by the state. The benefits? You’ll know how much money you’re getting when you retire; the benefit is guaranteed; and professionals who know what they’re doing will manage your money.

* Assumes a 4 percent return and purchase of a lifetime annuity. Also, take note: More than half of this amount—$751 a month—is money that Gay earned in the defined-benefit pension plan before switching to a defined-contribution system in 1991.
** Assumes a one-time make-up contribution by Gay of $8,064, and also that the Legislature steps in to allow teachers back into the plan—and that’s a big maybe.

Learn how to fight attacks on retirement plans. Download NEA’s Retirement Security Toolkit, which offers research, more resources, and concrete steps you can take to protect your retirement income.


Published in:

Published In