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Moving Money Where Teachers Are Not

An NEA local affiliate moves teachers back to college to sharpen their skills. All it took was smart salary bargaining, community outreach, and political action.

By Dave Winans, Policy/Program Analyst, NEA Collective Bargaining & Member Advocacy

A not-so-cryptic descriptive clue stares at you from the (student-designed!) logo of the Easton Area Education Association: four interlocking puzzle pieces spelling out EAEA.

In case it stumped you: This local affiliate of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA/NEA) busily works to connect the components of quality public education, including adequate funding, parent/community support, “professional zeal among teachers,” and—quite certainly—professional, competitive educator pay.

In December 2007, Easton Area Education Association (EAEA)   members—750 teachers, guidance counselors, school nurses, librarians, and school psychologists—finally fitted that “professional pay” piece into place when they ratified a new collective bargaining agreement with the Easton Area School District, on the far eastern end of the Keystone State.


EAEA members staff phones at a PBS telethon.

Thanks to the contract’s salary provisions, this urban/suburban-melting pot of a school system (with free-and-reduced-lunch students in most buildings) became, virtually overnight, an electromagnet for job applicants. No more is the Easton district a high-turnover “tenure-granting institution.”

The district Human Relations office reports an upsurge in applications. Many veteran teachers, on the verge of quitting, have decided to stay. Many, many educators have gone back to college for a Masters degree and/or more credits. And teachers’ morale is way up, because they know, down the road, they can learn more and earn more.

Easton’s progress is a byproduct of PSEA’s statewide salary initiative, which focuses local affiliates on bold pay goals (starting with a $40,000 minimum teacher salary), bargaining around “best practices” of salary schedule construction, the capture of employee “turnover savings” for future raises, member organizing/engagement, and a communications-driven “buzz” around professional pay.

In Easton classrooms, all that strategy has boiled down to these realities:

  • The five-year EAEA contract (from 2008-2009 through 2012-2013), provides annual raises of 5.29, 4.97, 4.96, 4.79, and 4.79 percent on each step of the pay scale.
  • Starting teacher pay increases considerably, progressing from $41,300 in 2008-09 to $54,063 in 2012-13.
  • By bargaining more money “where teachers are not” EAEA negotiators made it profitable for educators to move “to the right” across higher-paying columns/lanes for professional development. In 2008-09, for instance, there is a $4,800 annual pay difference between the Masters and Masters-plus-45-credit columns. That difference zooms to $6,000 in 2010-11, to $7,500 in 2011-2012, and to $8,250 in 2012-2013.
  • In exchange for a longer contract term and work schedule (matching that of surrounding districts), Association negotiators won both more money “to the right” and more time for professional development—11 days of “non-redundant” in-service training planned by a joint union-administration committee. And under the contract, the district reimburses each employee for up to 12 college credits a year.

The District’s Priority: Staying Competitive

Why did Easton pay fare so well in 2007 bargaining? That leads us to other pieces of the interlocking puzzle.

In the run-up to contract talks, the district grappled with a loss of teachers to “wealthier” districts up the Route 22 corridor, and its inability to attract the best teaching applicants.

Compounding the challenge was the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s mandates for better trained, “highly qualified” teachers. Not to mention Pennsylvania’s $200 million, three-year Classrooms for the Future initiative to improve high school teaching and learning by creating “technology-enriched instructional settings in English, math, science, and social studies classes.”

The simple question: How does a school employer attract and retain teachers, then give them incentives to go back to school? The obvious answer: Enhance and improve its “single salary schedule,” a proven personnel tool since at least the 1920s.

By the time pay talks began, district negotiators had seen the light. “This round of bargaining was more collaborative…, very positive,” notes then-EAEA chief negotiator Charlie Brill, a 12th grade AP government/politics teacher.

Not that the talks came without the back-and-forth and tension of collective bargaining. Negotiators raced against an arbitrary retirement “deadline” of Dec. 31, 2007, reports EAEA President Kevin Deely, who teaches 11th grade English. “We wanted our potential retirees to make their decision an informed one. It was a nail-biting experience!”

The Payoff: Better Student Learning

EAEA leaders emerged with nails enough to file, a “returning team” of classroom veterans, and a membership with a new appreciation for advanced learning.

“People went back to school immediately” after the new contract was signed, says Deely. “We know it will pay off for our members in the end, and the district is able to show the community that it has a staff dedicated to learning new things.”

Professional development—Easton-style—isn’t a false promise for students or just some way to fatten a teacher’s wallet. Advanced teacher training “helps students learn and understand subject matter in different ways,” stresses Deely.

Advanced training, he explains, helps teachers sharpen skills in areas such as reading programs, elementary “standards-based” report cards, and classroom technology.

And when change-wary educators “see intelligent colleagues using new theories in the classroom, they’ll be more willing to be part of the [back-to-college movement]; they’ll see it’s not some fad,” Deely predicts. “It’s one thing if some administrator says the latest brain research is important. But when teachers are hearing this from a professor in a college classroom, it’s different.”

Quite simply, concludes Brill, “When teachers are aware of the best practices and use the latest research and newest information in front of kids, students will perform better. That’s all there is to it!”

The Many Other Puzzle Pieces

There are yet other pieces to the Easton quality education puzzle, including EAEA’s deep involvement in:

1. Political/legislative action. It’s no divine miracle that the Easton district and local Association were able to bargain cooperatively in 2007 for an improved salary schedule, or that EAEA President Deely is able to hold biweekly meetings with the superintendent to peacefully resolve member problems. In fact, over the last two elections, EAEA “turned over” a teacher-unfriendly school board, including EAEA’s chief opponent on that board.

It takes hard work to put public education-friendly people in command. This politically active local interviews (some might say “grills”) school board candidates and turns out the vote. Then EAEA encourages members to speak out at board meetings and write “calmly and professionally” to board members about issues and concerns.

Finally, this NEA local affiliate reaches out to state and federal lawmakers. “We held a forum on ESEA [the No Child Left Behind Act] for them, discussed the changes NEA seeks in the law, and helped them understand the pressures our members face because of the law,” reports Deely. “We teach large ESL [English as a Second Language] and special education student populations, making it difficult to meet the ‘annual yearly progress’ requirements of ESEA.”

2. Community/media outreach. Local leaders, past and present, are especially proud of EAEA’s community outreach program, which builds good will for the schools and relentlessly publicizes the great things happening in classrooms.

Name the community cause, and EAEA members (displaying the local puzzle logo) have been involved in it. Outside of schools, they participate in everything from PBS telethons to bowling fundraisers for Big Brother/Big Sister clubs. Inside the buildings, these educators have tackled such community-backed priorities as student dress code reform and progressive discipline—even voluntarily arranging Saturday in-school detention.

Better yet, EAEA members, many of them products of Easton schools, voluntarily donate to the local’s own Community Impact Fund, a non-profit, tax-exempt 501 (c)(3) program that awards $500 grants to groups that work with district students outside the schools.

Grant rules specify that winners “must write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper explaining the project.” Invariably, the “Easton Area Education Association” pops up in those notes, including a Salvation Army captain’s acknowledgement of a grant for his after-school elementary Learning Zone. “Your kindness and generosity will mean growth and development in the lives of dozens of children from low-income homes,” he wrote.

Finally, EAEA encourages educators to publicly “set the record straight” on false stories about schools, and to overcome modesty (a definite occupational affliction) to boast about the good stuff they see. Once a week during the school year, teachers and the district collaborate on a Friday Update to tell those good-news stories on the district’s web site. Have a look, and then visit the Eastern Area Education Association site.

3. Union building. Pushing the other Easton puzzle pieces into place is the combined organizational energy of EAEA and its NEA state affiliate, PSEA.   EAEA has leadership in depth, works for “continuity” at the bargaining table (from one contract to the next), engages ever more members in committee work, and—with PSEA help—trains local leaders, Association (building) reps, and members in advocacy issues.

Moreover, EAEA participates in the Lehigh Valley Common Module, a “coordinated bargaining” council uniting PSEA local affiliates in Lehigh and Northampton counties. The council “shares information on what works and what does not [at local bargaining tables],” says Brill, on temporary assignment as a PSEA UniServ rep. “It has common collective bargaining goals; we need to make people accountable for [salary schedule] practices. Now we’re trying to expand this council region-wide.”

4. The PSEA salary initiative. Regional coordinated bargaining is a key component of the PSEA salary initiative, in which EAEA is an enthusiastic player. The local has exposed its bargainers, leaders, and rank-and-file members to the state affiliate’s highly-polished compensation awareness training, which focuses on PSEA-researched “five best practices” of teacher salary schedule construction (there are three for ESP scales).

On the ground, those practices should produce “strong, short” salary schedules with even-sized increments—scales that maximize lifetime earnings, move educators to progressively better-paying columns/lanes for professional development, and free up cash (expended to simply move bodies through schedules) for real general percentage pay increases. That increases average pay in a unit, meaning more money in the “base” (the total salary outlay), from which to bargain in follow-up rounds of pay talks.

These learned practices, and more, have enabled EAEA negotiators to engage in “plus-increment” bargaining, meaning that a published 4.97 percent raise is now really a 4.97 percent raise. A much smaller amount pays for step movement. That’s been an eye-opener for Kevin Deely, who freely admits: “I did not understand a salary schedule before I came into union life. I’d ask, ‘Why not just put money here, there, and there?’”

5. Common-sense strategies. Hard-charging local affiliates like EAEA wouldn’t get as far as they do without support from NEA’s UniServ program, which funds and trains a vast network of field staff. Throughout EAEA’s campaigns, seasoned PSEA UniServ rep Bob Creveling lent some on-the-mark advice, which he’s willing to share with anyone.

"You can’t just be active as a local the year a contract [or a district budget in a non-bargaining state] expires,” Creveling stresses. “You need to set up for the next contract immediately after you sign the current one. And you just don’t ‘go public’ as a local when you’re bargaining [or lobbying] for improved pay and teaching/learning conditions. You’ve got to be part of the community.”

Teachers are “some of the most important people in the community, a very powerful group,” Creveling points out. “EAEA members put themselves in the forefront of advocacy of children all the time and they’ve become politically involved.”

The EAEA president couldn’t agree more. “Taxpayers will not be willing to contribute more [during times of fiscal crisis],” says Deely, “unless school employees are active in the community. We have to constantly be on the PR front to make sure we’re reviewed positively out there.”

Where do educators start? “Boast about the positive things happening in your school,” advises Charlie Brill. “Teachers don’t brag about the good things they do.”

If the public only knew…Hey, they could know!