The Neshaminy, Penn., school district just outside of Philadelphia is engaged in its own showdown with the AFT’s affiliate there. Over the past four years, the district has battled against efforts by the AFT affiliate to further enrich the array of salary and healthcare perks — including a $27,500 early retirement bonus for teachers with 10 years on the job — it has gotten on behalf on rank-and-file workers. This has included a series of strikes by the AFT, including a second eight-day strike (just as high school seniors were taking final exams and preparing to walk down the aisle) that came to an end this week after a state court ordered Neshaminy teachers back to work. The AFT launched the strike after rejecting the district’s offer of a one percent pay hike and a 15 percent contribution to employee healthcare costs (which the district took off the table after the strike began); Neshaminy made the offer in spite of the fact that it must also reduce a $14 million budget shortfall and deal with $5 million in costs over the next two years arising from the retirement of 34 teachers. 

It is certainly hard to find fault with Neshaminy’s board for taking a hard line on the high costs of traditional teacher compensation. The average Neshaminy teacher gets $107,002 annually in salary and benefits; the district has been saddled with a single-source drug plan that had cost the district as much as $4 million a year (back in 2008) and has become even more expensive to shoulder. The district also rejected a Pennsylvania state arbitrator’s nonbinding ruling to provide back pay to AFT rank-and-file members (along with a 2.5 percent wage increase over two years). The fact that the AFT continues to insist on wage increases — including 7 percent wage increases for this year and next (per its 2011 offer) — and continuing an early retirement payout that is fiscally unsustainable (especially as the state is requiring Neshaminy and other districts to increase their pension contributions by half during the 2012-2013 school year, and may see those pension contributions more than double in the next nine years), makes it especially important for the district to keep pushing for a deal that is more-fiscally sound.

It seems that families and taxpayers in the district agree with its stance — and the district’s board has rallied support from other activists tired of the AFT’s tactics. Neshaminy has also attracted support from state groups looking to overhaul traditional teacher compensation. This week, Citizens Alliance for Pennsylvania ran a newspaper ad that listed the salaries reaped by all Neshaminy teachers — including the AFT’ local president (who reaps $121,343 in total compensation from the district, according to the ad). (Hat tip to Jeffrey Lord, my colleague at The American Spectator.) Although education traditionalists (and even some school reformers generally opposed to publishing Value-Added data on teacher performance) will wince at such a tactic, it is perfectly right for the public to know how much it pays those who work for the districts they finance.

What would have been even better is if Citizens dug deeper and showed one of the other problems with the AFT local’s defense of traditional teacher compensation (and the ultimate problem with education traditionalists defending this element of the status quo): That young teachers are paid far lower wages than veteran instructors, regardless of performance. Under Neshaminy’s old contract, newly-hired teachers could only make as much as  $52,354 — and that’s only if they had a master’s degree and 40 additional credits; it would take 10 years for a teacher to earn between $72,488 and $95,923 in annual salary (and even longer to gain the full compensation package so long as the state didn’t monkey around with it). Not only does the current system contribute to the high levels of attrition among young talented teachers that hurts the ability of districts such as Neshaminy to provide all kids with high-quality education, it is even unfair to high-performing veterans (who must earn the same wages as those who don’t deserve their jobs). Neshaminy’s board should actually take the next step and offer a new compensation system that eliminates degree- and -seniority-based pay scales, includes performance-based pay (equivalent to as much a 25 percent of salary in order to actually be effective), push for a new teacher evaluation system that uses student performance as the basis for pay and promotion, and even craft new career paths (including more specialization in teaching).

What’s happening in Neshaminy and what should happen in Chicago is what other districts must do in order to advance much-needed reform. We need new systems of compensating teachers that taxpayers can afford to bear, allow for good and great teachers to get the compensation they deserve, and foster cultures of genius in which all kids can succeed.