Newark Public Schools is desperate to fill teaching slots, a combination of teacher burn-out and an increase in the number of teachers employed by the district via the short-term firehose of money from the U.S. government called the American Rescue Plan Act. With cooperation from Newark Teachers Union, the district came up with a strategy: pay each new first-year teacher $62,000 in salary, well above the state average of $54,053.
Whoa! Sounds great!
Until you look at the fine print that shows teachers starting their first year in Newark won’t see salary increases for close to a decade.
Let me explain.
Salaries for teachers in traditional school districts throughout the U.S. are typically “step and lane” models plotted on a “salary guide.” This means that teachers earn raises for each additional year of experience (“steps”) and can move to higher “lanes” by earning additional education credits and degrees. Under Newark’s old salary guide for school year 2022-2023, a first-year teacher with a Master’s degree started at $57,500 and crept up each year. By year nine the teacher would earn $65,500, exactly $8K more than the first year, and top out at step 19 at $105,010. (Like most salary guides, Newark’s is back-loaded, with salaries going up slowly and then leaping up dramatically: the jump between steps 18 and 19 is almost $10,000.)
Now, under the revised salary guide, new teachers in Newark start out at $62,000. But here’s the catch: according to the new guide it will take NINE YEARS of seniority before those new teachers see even a modest raise in salary.
How many teachers are going to stick around that long? NJ State Aid Guy notes that 80% of teachers will never reach the number of years required for pension eligibility (25 years for the whole thing, 10 years to see any benefit at all). Times have changed, folks. My dad taught high school social studies in New York City for 25 years and retired with a nice fat pension. But kids today? They value career mobility, promotions, advancement. Take your “step and lane” baby steps and shove it.
The truth is Newark couldn’t attract enough new teachers with their new starting salaries, or maybe prospective teachers were savvy enough to read the fine print. The district just announced it’s taking advantage of legislation signed by Gov. Phil Murphy last January that allows districts to hire retired teachers and give them a $92,000 salary while they continue to get their annual (non-taxable) pension payments.
What if we’re going about this all wrong? Teachers deserve higher compensation from the get-go. Instead of forcing them to adhere to an archaic system that freezes their salaries for inordinate periods of time (find me a millennial or GenZ who would tolerate no pay increase for eight years) or makes teachers work for two decades before seeing appropriate compensation for their getting-tougher-all-the-time jobs, what if we started them off with competitive wages?
And what if we didn’t make them wait 25 years to see returns on their mandated pension contributions and gave them the option of defined contribution plans like 401K’s, which could travel with them when most of them move on? (This was recommended by the 2015 nonpartisan New Jersey Pension and Health Benefit Study Commission.)
And what if we added another method of garnering salary increases, like tying merit bonuses to objectively-measured student growth?
I know, I’m dreaming. But our kids need great teachers and our teachers deserve fair compensation that kicks in before they retire. Are we ready to do something about it?