A screenshot from the Daily News' livestream coverage.
A screenshot from the Daily News’ livestream coverage.

Joe Lhota wants to bring performance-based pay for teachers to New York City finally and he thinks he can convince a union that’s long been opposed to the idea.

Making his debut on education in a forum hosted by the New York Daily News last night, Lhota said he would seek to replicate Newark’s new merit pay system if he became mayor.

He hailed the Bloomberg administration’s record on education and aligned himself with the mayor on policies of closing low-performing schools and supporting charter schools. But he said the Bloomberg legacy was incomplete.

“The one piece that’s missing is working with the union for merit pay and changing their approach,” Lhota said in an interview after the forum.

Lhota also said teachers should receive pay bumps if they teach a high-demand subject or work in the toughest schools.

Pressed to explain how he’d achieve a compensation system that’s based on performance, since the United Federation of Teachers has always opposed individual merit pay initiatives, Lhota, a Republican, said he wouldn’t have to start from scratch. On stage and in the interview, he repeatedly referenced Newark’s landmark teacher contract passed by the city’s union last year and praised the role that former UFT president Randi Weingarten, now president of the American Federation of Teachers, played in getting the deal done.

“There’s a road map for it,” Lhota said. “[Randi Weingarten] was integrally involved in Newark with Governor Christie in determining how the merit pay would work.”

“Seeing Randi at the table … was a true sea change for teachers and their unions, that they’re willing to go the extra step to make merit pay happen,” he added.

Lhota didn’t specify how to fund the bonuses. Newark’s system will cost at least $50 million and is paid for now entirely by private funds, most of which will come from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic foundation.

Performance-based pay for teachers is a thorny issue in New York City, which piloted a version of merit pay in 200 schools in 2007. The pilot enabled schools to give out up to $3,000 bonuses to teachers if the school improved its progress report results. But a study of student achievement in those schools found that test scores did not improve and actually dropped in middle school grades.

That pilot was launched collaboratively by Mayor Bloomberg and Weingarten, but quietly shelved in 2010.  Last year, Bloomberg proposed giving $20,000 bonuses to individual teachers rated highly effective two years in a row, a proposal that the union quickly shut the door on. The city and union have not yet reached a deal on an evaluation system to rate teachers on a more detailed level.

Still, Lhota expressed optimism that he could get UFT President Michael Mulgrew to come around. He said that working with the union to lobby the Governor and state legislature for more equitable funding for New York City would be a top priority.

“You know, when I deal with unions I always try to find common ground,” Lhota said. “Common ground here would be getting a fair share for the New York City Department of Education. And I can’t see a better partner in doing that other than Michael Mulgrew.”

In a statement, Mulgrew said he remained opposed to merit pay and declined to take up Lhota’s invitation to collaborate.

“We don’t negotiate in public with officeholders, much less with candidates for office,” Mulgrew said. “But there’s no evidence that individual merit pay addresses the real need of our schools — helping children learn.”

Lhota was one of seven mayoral candidates at the forum, which included four likely Democratic candidates — Christine Quinn, John Liu, Bill De Blasio and Bill Thompson — and two other Republican candidates — Tom Allon and John Catsimatidis.

Allon has also called for individual merit pay. But while Quinn, the Democratic frontrunner, has said she would consider paying teachers more to staff high-need subjects and schools, she has rejected the notion of individual merit pay based on teacher performance, saying that data do not support the practice. On Tuesday, when moderator Errol Louis asked who opposed a merit pay system, all of the Democratic candidates raised their hands.

The 90-minute event focused squarely on education and covered a variety of contentious issues, including school closures, charter schools, teacher evaluations, and the teacher contract.

Lhota has an uphill climb against his established Democratic rivals. Although he is the Republican frontrunner, recent polling data shows that many New Yorkers still aren’t familiar with Lhota, a former investment banker, top aide to Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and most recently, Chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.