Denver Teachers Vote for Performance Pay

Published May 1, 2004

Members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) on March 19 approved a plan that would replace the traditional salary schedule with one that pays teachers for performance, including the scores of their students on standardized tests.

The affirmative vote came after a four-year pilot project and will not go into effect unless Denver voters approve a $25 million property tax hike to pay for it in November 2005. The DCTA leadership supported the plan, despite the fact that NEA’s national policy, adopted in 2000, declares performance pay systems to be “inappropriate.”

NEA’s stance didn’t deter DCTA.

“I don’t open my NEA book every morning to see what I can and cannot do,” said DCTA President Becky Wissink.

Whether the plan succeeds or fails may depend less on the plan itself and more on its method of adoption. There are approximately 4,500 teachers in Denver, but only 3,200 who belong to the union. Only union members were allowed to vote. Of those 3,200, only 2,718 cast a ballot. Of those votes, only 59 percent endorsed the plan. So, about 1,600 of Denver’s 4.500 teachers thought highly enough of the idea to vote for it. The rest didn’t, or didn’t get the chance to say.

In addition, current teachers will have until the 2012-13 school year to switch from the current system to the new one. New hires will be automatically placed on the performance pay schedule. So, some of those “yes” votes were made by teachers who will retire–or move, or switch careers–without having to work under the new schedule.

That changes the whole dynamic. By having teachers in 2004 vote on a plan that will not apply to everyone until 2012, the Denver performance pay plan is now an experiment in recruitment and retention. What kinds of teachers will now apply for jobs in Denver? Which teachers will remain in the district and which will transfer to a district with a traditional salary schedule? Which teachers in other districts will want to transfer in?

Should the voters approve funding for the plan, many will be watching and analyzing student achievement in Denver for years to come. But equally interesting will be the effect of an available performance pay school district on the teacher labor market and, by extension, the effect on DCTA membership. Since Denver teachers are not compelled to join the union, will teachers drawn to performance pay be more union-friendly, or less? The ripple effects will be worth watching.

Mike Antonucci is director of the Education Intelligence Agency, which conducts public education research, analysis, and investigations. He also publishes a weekly Communiqué on teacher union activities. His email address is [email protected]. The weekly Communiqué is available online at