Kerry Retreats on ‘Pay for Performance’

Published July 1, 2004

A confidential memo from National Education Association President Reg Weaver to union officials detailed a meeting he had in mid-May with U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) in which Kerry backed away from the “pay for performance” language in his proposed education plan.

On May 6 at a California high school, Kerry gave an education policy speech that expressed support for higher pay for math and science teachers and for those who work in difficult-to-staff schools. He also stated the need “to find ways to reward teachers for excellence, and to reward the students’ teachers who obviously show tremendous success.” Kerry said that greater achievement “ought to be able to command greater pay just the way it does in every other sector of professional employment in the United States of America.”

After the speech, Kerry’s campaign released a press statement declaring the candidate “will establish new systems that reward teachers for excellence in the classroom, including pay based on improvement in student achievement.”

Many elements of Kerry’s plan caused consternation at NEA headquarters, but none more so than the reference to performance pay, which NEA strictly opposes. NEA released a press statement in response to Kerry’s speech, saying, “We look forward to discussing ways to help strengthen Senator Kerry’s proposals in ways that will meet the needs of America’s public school students.”

That opportunity evidently occurred two weeks later in Washington, DC, when NEA President Weaver, Executive Director John Wilson, and Director of Government Relations Diane Shust met with Kerry. In a memo dated May 21 and disseminated widely to high-ranking NEA officials nationwide, Weaver described what he called “a very positive meeting in which the Senator expressed strong interest in working closely with NEA and outlined his support for a number of NEA priorities.”

On the issue of performance pay, Weaver reported, “We raised our concerns that the Kerry campaign used the language ‘pay-for-performance’ in his press release, although the Senator himself did not use those words in his remarks and the formal policy document did not use it. The Senator clarified that the campaign did not intend to use that language and would not do so in the future. He asked that I convey this point to NEA leaders.”

Weaver went on to note Kerry’s commitment to fully fund the No Child Left Behind Act, to advance early childhood education programs, and to “roll back the Bush tax cuts” to pay for education and health care. Weaver’s memo did not mention Kerry’s proposals for differential pay, teacher testing, or expedited teacher dismissal procedures.

In a May 7 speech to the Democratic Leadership Council, Kerry said, “Yesterday, I proposed the most far-reaching reforms in teacher pay in our nation’s history.” Whether or not Kerry uses the words “pay for performance” in the future is irrelevant to the central question: Will those reforms survive the resistance of education’s most powerful special-interest group?

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, in which this article first appeared. His email address is [email protected].