Baltimore teachers began voting Wednesday on what is being hailed as one of the most progressive union contracts to emerge in the nation, which, if ratified, would give teachers unprecedented pay and autonomy and tie raises to proven effectiveness in the classroom.
Hundreds of the union's approximately 6,500 teachers participated in early voting at the Baltimore Teachers Union headquarters Wednesday evening, shaping up for what union officials anticipate will be a near-record turnout for the ratification vote.
Voting is due to continue from noon to 3 p.m. Thursday at the Polytechnic Institute and Western High School complex.
"In the first hour, I saw more people than I have seen in one day," said M. Bertha McCloud, a retired teacher who has worked union voting days for 15 years.
"People really seem interested in this contract — because it's the best we've ever gotten."
National experts are eagerly watching the ratification vote, as Baltimore positions itself to become one of the most forward-thinking districts in teacher quality reform.
"Usually contracts pass because teachers don't want to work without a contract," said Emily Cohen, district policy director for the National Council for Teacher Quality, a nonpartisan advocacy group that monitors the city's teacher quality practices.
"But I think in [Baltimore], teachers are going to go for it because they have opportunity for something great. They're willing to take the risk because they have a lot to gain."
The new contract would eliminate basing pay raises solely on tenure and master's degrees, and would introduce a new system that would allow teachers to navigate their way up a four-tiered, highly paid career ladder. At the end of the three-year contract, at least one teacher in every school could be making more than $100,000.
The agreement also dictates that by its third year, all schools will employ "school-based options" — a plan under which 80 percent of teachers in a school could help set working conditions such as a longer work day or more planning time.
Union President Marietta English said she was optimistic that the teachers will ratify the contract.
She said she hopes that they will keep in mind that the union is responding to their feedback and that "I have teachers' best interest at heart."
One teacher said the contract shows that the school system values its teachers.
"I feel that it treats us more like professionals," said Genevieve Mason, a teacher of 11 years who voted early and in favor of the contract.
"There is no perfect system, but just the idea that we're looking at a career ladder says, 'We value you and the time you've put into the system.'"
But since the tentative pact between district and union leaders was made public Sept. 29, some teachers have protested the ratification until more concrete details about how teachers will be evaluated become available.
The contract will rely heavily on a system that is still being devised by the state Department of Education, which will determine in what ways 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation will be tied to student performance.
"If you live with a system that you feel is relatively fair, and now your union changes the whole game plan without telling you, and tells you in two weeks, to vote on it in three hours — I'm angry," said Peter French, a 19-year teacher who started one of the protests against the contract.
Union officials said they have done "everything humanly possible" to ensure that all teachers' questions are answered. Union leaders will hold the last of several information sessions right before voting begins Thursday.
Cohen said that she has observed several proposals similar to Baltimore's face much more controversy.
The first day of voting in Baltimore coincided with the resignation of embattled Washington schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who for years engaged in a bitter and public debate with the district's union leaders to yield reforms similar to those proposed in Baltimore.
English drew on her recent trip to South Africa for a union conference to describe how teachers should look at the new contract.
"In South Africa, I was sitting on a lawn, waiting for the session to begin, and a parade was going by," English said. "They started to move toward me and weren't stopping. I had a choice of getting out of the way, joining the group or being trampled over.
"So, I decided to get up and join in.
"That's a lot like reform," she added. "It's coming, so you get right out in front."
If the agreement is not ratified, the current contract will expire at the end of the month and negotiations will resume.