Issue of Teacher Salaries Assumes New Shape

March 24, 1991|By JOAN TYNER

The week of April 15 will see a first in education-obsessed Howard County: Teachers, who typically put in an extra 10 to 15 hours a week planning and correcting assignments on their own time, won't take work home or otherwise labor beyond the required 7 hours and 35 minutes. In union parlance, this is known as "working to contract."

In the real world, it's called making a point.

Teachers across the region are fighting mad about trimmed education funding and being shanghaied into foregoing raises to ease the budget vise gripping local governments. Increasing teacher ire is an attorney general's opinion lowering state-mandated compulsory funding of schools. Worse, legislators in Annapolis have threatened to withhold additional state aid if teachers receive pay raises this year, adding to the bunker mentality of teacher's unions across the state.

Ask Jim Swab, president of the Howard County Education Association, the union representing teachers, administrators and school support workers, about the "work to contract" action and he'll tell you it is an extraordinary response to extraordinary times.

"I don't think the association has ever taken such action, but we have never been under attack by bills in the General Assembly, and never has there been such a threat by a county executive to withhold money used to pay for student growth," he says. "We're on the verge of stepping back in time."

This promises to be a year of firsts for education in Maryland. Not so much in the conventional sense of initiatives and programs, but with regard to teacher salaries, the 800-pound gorilla that dominated union agendas throughout the 1980s. During that decade, growth in teacher salaries came to symbolize progress in education. But this is beginning to change in a climate of new economic and ideological realities.

With financial troubles across the region ranging from calamitous to merely troubling, county executives are swinging the budget scythe with gusto. Education, the sacred cow which accounts for about half of all county spending, is no longer untouchable -- and neither are the teacher salaries and benefits that account for the lion's share of school spending. New realities dictate that school funding fit the size of a jurisdiction's purse.

There's something else at work, too: a feeling that the school-reform movement should be centered around children and learning, not pay for teachers. There is also a realization that the rapid ascension in salaries through the 1980s was justified but cannot continue indefinitely. Consider the analogy offered by Edward Veit, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County. "There's a mentality out there that says Sparrows Point is going to open, that there will be a return to the good old days."

Mr. Veit suggests that the budget crunch of the moment makes this a propitious time to push other, non-financial imperatives such as more autonomy for teachers in making decisions and more opportunities to do professional work outside the classroom. He blames the salary focus on school boards and the county governments who ultimately shape the scope and direction of education spending. "It's always been cheaper to pay teachers and do nothing for the classroom," he says.

That strategy, buoyed by strong public support, has led to markedly improved paychecks for teachers over the past decade. On average, salaries rose better than 115 percent to $36,319 during the 1980s, twice the increase logged by the Consumer Price Index. Maryland teachers' pay rose from 10th to 6th in the nation.

In large measure, the gains made here were the product of the national movement toward education reform. In its 1983 report, "A Nation at Risk," the National Commission on Excellence in Education warned that "our very future as a nation and a people" was threatened by the "rising tide of mediocrity" flowing from our schools.

The specter of an incompetent, ill-educated America struggling to compete in world markets scared businesses into providing corporate leadership for what had traditionally been viewed as a public-sector problem. Education standards were lifted, course requirements for high school graduation and curricula were made more specific. Then, amid rising concern about a shortage of qualified teachers, the focus shifted to attracting and retaining the best and brightest students by raising chronically depressed pay levels.

In Maryland, the call to arms was further propelled by cutthroat competition between subdivisions, particularly Montgomery and Howard counties, the state's outposts of affluence. These jurisdictions built reputations on top-flight school systems defined by cozy class sizes, extensive gifted and talented programs and abundant resources. These counties, benefiting from soaring residential growth, set the pace for teacher salaries statewide.

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