During that period, teachers in Council Rock and other suburban Philadelphia districts have significantly improved their financial lot. Their salaries outdistance average teacher pay nationally. They also earn more than teachers working in less affluent urban and rural regions.
In 1993-94, the median classroom teacher's salary in the Pennsylvania suburbs was $53,297, and $41,422 in the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia. In the city, the median was $45,850. The salaries of nearly 34,000 full-time teachers in the area were analyzed by The Inquirer based on data from the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Education Departments.
Statewide, the 1993-94 median salary was $41,900 for Pennsylvania's 86,700 public school teachers and $47,600 for 70,000 New Jersey teachers. The median salary nationally for the same year was $33,063, according to the National Education Association.
(The Inquirer used medians, rather than averages, to analyze teacher salaries. A median is the middle figure in a ranking of all salaries in a given district. It tends to be less influenced by unusual highs or lows.)
The three highest median teacher salaries in the Philadelphia area were in the Pennsylvania suburbs: Council Rock School District, Bucks County ($71,344); Colonial School District, Montgomery County ($67,328), and Cheltenham Township, Montgomery County ($64,548).
The three lowest in the Philadelphia region were in New Jersey: City of Camden ($31,002); Westville Borough, Gloucester County ($31,254), and Wenonah Borough, Gloucester County ($31,303).
In a ranking of 165 school districts in the Philadelphia area, only five districts in New Jersey fell among the 50 highest-paying districts. The only New Jersey district in the top 25 is Cherry Hill, at No. 25 with a median salary of $57,217 a year.
The Pennsylvania suburbs also lead the state: The 10 districts with the highest medians are in the Philadelphia area. Not so in New Jersey, where most of the top 10 are in Bergen County near New York, including top-paying Closter Borough, where the median is $69,567.
In 1993-94, Council Rock classroom teachers earned a median salary of
$71,344 a year. While that median is the highest of any public school district in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, 13 other suburban districts show median salaries that exceed $60,000.
In many districts, a majority of the teaching force is at or very near the top of the salary schedule. In Council Rock, half of the teachers hold master's degrees with 30 extra credits and earn about $74,000 - the top salary this year - according to the union representing the district's teachers.
The Inquirer's review of salaries suggests that a factor in determining teacher pay is the relative affluence of a community - communities with higher median income tend to pay their teachers more. Of the 10 highest paying districts, for instance, six are in relatively affluent parts of Bucks and Montgomery Counties.
Lynn Maher, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Education Association, cited a relatively low cost of living in South Jersey communities as a factor in keeping salaries lower in the New Jersey suburbs.
In many suburban districts, the median teacher salary is higher than the median household income of district residents.
In the Colonial district, which includes the Montgomery County communities of Plymouth, Whitemarsh and Conshohocken, the median teacher salary is more than $67,000, while the household income figure is just under $49,000.
Teachers have benefited from a shift in the region's wealth from the city to the suburbs, a growth in the power of teachers' unions and a competition with industry for talented specialists in such disciplines as math and science, according to union leaders, contract negotiators and school board representatives.
The teachers' unions say that pay has reached the level of occupations with similar education requirements.
"For the most part, teachers are making a professional wage today," said Karen Joseph of the New Jersey Education Association.
However, what teachers and their advocates view as a respectable annual income strikes critics as too high a wage for a public employee working a 9 1/ 2-month year.
"The public doesn't realize what a teacher earns," said Stuart Kessler, school board president of Colonial, which comes in second in the salary rankings. "Generally, they're shocked - amazed - appalled - when they find out."
Teacher pay is the big-ticket item of any school budget, giving critics of public school spending a broad target.
In Council Rock, for instance, conflict over teacher salary levels has preoccupied the school board for the last several years.
Council Rock school board member Alan Rogers argues that salaries are so high that they threaten the viability of public schools. "We have to be extremely careful or we are going to outrun our pocketbooks," he said.
There is broad agreement about the historic factors that have combined to lift teacher salaries to their present levels.
Since the late 1950s, teachers have won the right to unionize in all but 11 Southern and Western states, according to the National Education Association.
The first major effect of unionization was to equalize salaries: female teachers and elementary-school teachers won significant raises, putting them on equal footing with male high school teachers, the top-paid educators at the time.
In the 1970s, another trend upped the ante: Math and science teachers were lured out of the classroom into the research laboratories and computer operations. School boards were forced to raise salaries to attract and hold onto capable teachers in those disciplines.
"Taxpayer groups tend to ignore the market and look at the union issue, but I think the key factor in raising salaries was competition between districts back when there was a shortage (of math and science teachers)," said Donald Atkiss, veteran negotiator for the Pennsylvania State Education Association.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, meanwhile, the suburbs were consolidating their grasp on the region's wealth.
"The counties around Philadelphia are among the very wealthiest counties in the United States - which means they are among the wealthiest on the planet Earth," said Richard McAdams, an education professor at Lehigh University who has studied the status of teachers in this country and abroad. Teacher salaries in the region, McAdams said, reflect that affluence.
While the area's overall relative affluence helps explain regionwide salary levels, other factors play a role in determining how much individual districts wind up paying teachers.
Charles Sweet, longtime negotiator for school boards in the Pennsylvania suburbs, said that across the Pennsylvania suburbs, teacher salaries in individual districts in the area in some measure are the result of "historic events or historic accidents" - including the community's wealth, salary levels in neighboring districts, whether the district has experienced a strike and the abilities of negotiators.
Several big Bucks districts, said Sweet, carried longstanding rivalries
from the football field into contract negotiations, with one board deciding to match or do better than the pay offered by a rival district. And some suburban districts, he said, have sought an edge in hiring by offering the highest starting salary or the highest maximum salary.
According to McAdams, teachers in one district invariably seek a contract to match those of higher-paid teachers in nearby districts. John Dunlop, director of collective bargaining for the National Education Association, said that school boards also tend to seek out "signposts" from similarly situated districts about what to pay locally.
That can lead to clusters of districts with similar salary levels. For instance, a necklace of Montgomery County districts - Colonial, Springfield, Cheltenham, Abington and Upper Dublin - all offered top pay above $70,000 in 1993-94.
Sweet recalled bargaining in the 1980s in Bucks County, where teacher negotiators convinced "seven or eight districts to be not less than fourth in the county" - which has just 13 districts. The strategy resulted in a quick
escalation of salaries in the county.
In recent years, the Doylestown lawyer said, teachers in some districts have agreed to no wage increase for one or more years or to increases reflecting the low inflation rate of recent years. In a few districts, teachers have agreed to reopen negotiations and accept less - including Council Rock, Cheltenham and Quakertown.
There is another major, much-disputed factor to weigh in assessing teacher salaries: the effect of teachers' strikes.
One view holds that the strike option has resulted in higher settlements.
Dunlop, however, minimized the role of strikes on wage pacts. "You can find very high pay in states that ban strikes," he said. "I would say it's the total dynamic of collective bargaining, not just one feature, that results in strong salaries. And wealthy districts over the whole of the United States tend to pay better than poor districts."
The state with the highest average pay, Connecticut, has binding arbitration - and school boards there complain that arbitration has driven wages higher. Ranked after Connecticut, in order, are Alaska, New York, New Jersey, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Among those states, only teachers in Alaska and Pennsylvania can strike without penalty.
The school districts that lead the nation in teachers' salary are in the wealthy suburban counties on Long Island and north of New York City, where there is no strike option.
Central to the issue of teachers' salaries is one question: Does higher pay for educators guarantee better education for students?
Henry Nacrelli, superintendent of the Rose Tree Media district, believes that current salary levels have enabled his district to hire teachers with exceptional credentials. The median salary in Rose Tree Media is $52,483, which ranks the district 37th locally.
"We have hired a young man, a graduate of Princeton, a master's from Columbia, who probably would have gone to law school. . . . We hired a graduate of Harvard teaching at the high school - I don't think we would have attracted and gotten her," Nacrelli said.
Freitag, the Council Rock teacher, said his colleagues can share credit for student achievement in that district's public schools.
"(Teachers) aspire to be here," Freitag said. "They want to be part of what's seen as the best and they say, 'I'm willing to pull my weight.' That's what Council Rock has become."
In counterpoint, a 1994 study by the Brookings Institution in Washington cast doubt on a correlation between improved salaries and quality instruction. The Brookings study found that mandatory qualifications and higher salaries across the board have "proved to be generally ineffective" in guaranteeing an adequate supply of superior teachers.
"If you want effective teaching then you have to give incentives," said Anita Summers, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, who contributed to the Brookings study. "(The issue is) whether or not the children in your class learn more, achieve more than others. If you are particularly successful, then you should get big bonuses. If you are unsuccessful, then the opposite should happen."
Incentive programs generally are opposed by teachers' unions. "They don't work," said Edward Gallagher, NJEA spokesman. "They are arbitrary, they generally are based on quotas and, where they have been attempted, they have failed."
David Thornburgh, executive director of the Pennsylvania Economy League, Eastern Division, said that the common wisdom 15 to 20 years ago was that schools could be improved by upgrading the status of teachers. Improving salaries "would be a tangible thing we could do."
"If we paid teachers more, treated them as professionals, that would show up in educational achievement," Thornburgh said. "Now, we're looking at that choice differently, because it doesn't appear our kids are performing better."
Now education groups are discussing ways to measure teacher and school performance and link them to compensation.
Meanwhile, there are signs that settlements are moderating and that teachers are scaling back salary demands. "You can't just operate as a union," said Atkiss, with the PSEA. "You have to consider the health of the community."
According to a recent analysis of 1994-95 contracts by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, beginning teacher salaries rose an average 3.3 percent to $28,000, with a 4 percent average increase recorded for more senior workers.
Council Rock teachers continue to set the pace. By 1996-97, top pay in that Bucks County district will reach $81,600.