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Professional Pay: It's the Pennsylvania Priority

by Dave Winans, April 2008

It's one thing to set starting salary targets of $40,000 for every teacher and a living wage for every ESP, initial goals of NEA's national Salary Campaign. But how can a state affiliate reach those goals?

For valuable clues, look at the Pennsylvania State Education Association's comprehensive teacher and ESP pay initiatives, which push local affiliates toward (and above) the "40K" and living wage floors through a range of researched, field-tested tactics-starting with intensive bargainer focus on "best practices" for salary schedule development.

The bottom line: It's working for PSEA, which faces the same rural, urban, and fiscal challenges as any other NEA affiliate. Currently, 210 PSEA teacher locals have contracts with starting pay of 40K or above, and 123 contracts actually pay teachers at that level now. More impressively, PSEA has three locals with contracts providing 50K minimums, one in a low-wealth former coal mining community, and has launched a "pilot" living wage campaign in one ESP affiliate-with another on the way.

Driving this momentum is a state affiliate that grasps the connection between higher pay and hard, focused union work. PSEA's comprehensive 2005-08 Professional Compensation Strategy stresses that "Implementation of the plan will require broad-based commitment from PSEA governance, staff, and members through increased salary training, utilization of technology, public awareness, and increased coordinated bargaining among local associations." 

That doesn't tell half the story. When pressed, Pennsylvania strategists cite these factors behind PSEA's salary progress:

* Local member and leader buy-in. PSEA works to drive the "compensation awareness" element of its program, focused on five best practices for teacher pay scales and three for ESP schedules, beyond bargaining teams, local officers, and regional events-to meetings of members and Association reps. Across the state, teachers and ESPs alike are learning the career earnings advantage of short, strong schedules with decent minimums (that increase as much as maximum rates), uniform steps/increments, and as many extra columns/lanes as possible to reward professional development.

* Staff technical ability and IT support. PSEA has long known that trained UniServ reps "capable of constructing and educating about salary schedules" have a bargaining advantage. Besides teaching front-line negotiators these skills, PSEA is working to place two pay experts in each of its 11 regions, a "Compensation Think Tank" with in-depth knowledge of salary theory and PSEA-created software-for uses such as costing, turnover savings computation, and individualized bargaining presentations. PSEA's ultimate goal: a staff that "spends more time strategizing and analyzing, and less time crunching numbers."

* Setting bold goals and measuring success. PSEA thinks big. It encourages successful "40K" locals to push next for a 50K floor. And it recommends that ESP affiliates shoot for "a minimum of at least the local living wage" and more, by bargaining scales based on three best practices (and five "sub-best practices") and working where possible towards schedules compacted to a single rate. PSEA's advice for moving ahead: Set long-range local salary goals, develop strategies for reaching those goals, and then measure progress at the conclusion of bargaining. Towards that end, PSEA is currently designing a computer program to analyze teacher schedules, using quantitative measures based on the five best practices.

* Use of staff turnover savings. One side benefit of Pennsylvania's initiative: PSEA's IT and Research divisions have developed a software tool that enables each local to compare the actual cost of a settlement with projected costs over the prior 15 years. In almost all cases, actual salary expenditures are substantially less, enabling local bargainers to challenge districts' cost projections and devise creative ways to capture staff turnover savings, or "breakage."

* Creation of a salary "buzz." Beyond promoting salary goals and best practices through coordinated bargaining councils, PSEA has moved the compensation message directly to members through a variety of outlets. Teachers constantly see and hear about their "Strive for Five" campaign (named in a member contest!) at statewide and regional conferences, on local web sites linked to the PSEA compensation site, and in PSEA publications.

Moreover, the state affiliate is now creating a five-star rating system for salary schedules. PSEA, which has honored its "40K" locals, will next recognize local schedules incorporating best practices, through both its media and bargaining awards. The whole idea: Celebrate locals that join in and support the statewide salary campaign, rather than punish affiliates that break with organizational goals and adopt lower standards.

Professional, competitive pay is indeed the Pennsylvania Priority.