The resolution adopted by the National Education Association convention says the national organization will give technical assistance to a local that has "bonus" plans imposed on them by legislatures or school boards. A local would not be kept from imposing such a plan on itself as part of bargaining with school boards.
Leaders of the union, in crafting the changes to its bargaining policy, insisted the new "bonus" pay approach should not replace pay based on seniority, nor subject a teacher to the whims of a principal.
"We will continue to oppose merit pay based upon subjective evaluations," said NEA President Bob Chase, who has been both praised and vilified for stressing a "new unionism" that urges collaboration with management on improving schools.
During hours of emotional debate, some teachers bitterly opposed the changes, arguing it will be the beginning of the end for a pay-for-seniority policy that dates back to the 1920s, the earliest years of the public education system.
The opponents argued bonuses based on student performance or a boss' judgment are divisive and unfair to teachers with the most-troubled students.
"Who will want to teach the poor students? The students who don't speak English as well?" said Barbara Kerr, a member of the California Teachers Association. "This makes us vulnerable to the growing attacks by districts, school boards and our enemies."
Edithe Fulton, vice president of the New Jersey Education Association, who has taught elementary school for 34 years, said the policy undermines attempts by union locals to bargain with school boards.
"School boards can look across the table and say look what your national organization has done," she complained.
The new NEA policy was adopted on voice vote by the 10,000 delegates attending the conference.
Union members who supported the policy change said the shift toward some form of bonus pay structure was inevitable.
"We could no longer engage in the culture of refusal," said Andrea Giunta, an elementary school teacher who leads the Denver affiliate of the NEA. "Teachers are terribly underpaid. People are seeking any way teacher compensation can be improved."
She said it is better to have teachers involved in crafting the plans instead of fighting them.
Teacher cash incentives have grown in popularity around the country as business leaders and politicians frequently call for higher standards in primary education. Various incentive plans have been proposed in New York City and in California, giving teachers higher salaries or bonuses for performance.
Some shift toward performance incentives has been proposed by both Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore as they complete for the presidency.
The American ederation of Teachers, a smaller union with 1 million members that was meeting in Philadelphia, has not made a decision on the issue. AFT president Sandra Feldman said her group is studying the pay-for-performance issue.
By ANJETTA McQUEEN
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