N.J. EDUCATION REFORM BILL MOVES IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION

Editorial by the Star-Ledger Editorial Board in the Sunday Star-Ledger

03/13/12

 New Jersey has suffered under the same antiquated tenure system for a century. But now, finally, it faces an epic overhaul: State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) has proposed a reform bill that has set the most important debate of the year in Trenton, one that will affect kids for the next generation.

What the bill would create is a system that protects good teachers, provides help to those in the middle and finally sets up a reasonable process to get rid of the bad ones. Instead of offering lifetime protections to even the worst teachers, tenure would be based on job performance. Instead of protecting adults, the new system would protect children. This type of reform is desperately needed.

But this bill has one critical weakness: It would still force districts that are shrinking staffs to fire their least senior teachers in some cases, even those who are top performers.

The bill moves in the right direction on this score by ending a destructive policy known as “last-in, first-out,” which forces districts to target their least senior teachers first. But it has a grandfather clause exempting teachers who have tenure. So they would keep their seniority protection.

Why grandfather a system that everybody agrees doesn’t work? It would cripple a district’s ability to hold on to its best teachers. And it would create two tiers of tenured teachers — one protected class that had tenure before this bill passed, and another made up of teachers who earn tenure after that date. Even the unions don’t like that.

On the whole, though, this bill is a huge step forward. Here’s how it works: Teachers would receive one of four grades, from highly effective to ineffective, and can earn tenure after three years of good evaluations. But they could lose tenure after two years of bad performances. (Evaluations don’t start until after the first year of teaching, to make sure rookie teachers get better mentoring and support.)

If there are layoffs, good teachers wouldn’t have to be fired just because they don’t have seniority. Districts could dismiss teachers and administrators based first and foremost on school needs, and then according to their effectiveness. They wouldn’t simply be forced to get rid of their new teachers based on union contracts, the way they are now.

The bill also gives principals more power to choose their own staff, and teachers more say-so over what school they’re placed in. If they aren’t wanted anywhere, they could lose their jobs after a year.

The unions, of course, are fighting this all the way. But it’s up to our state’s leadership to do what’s best for kids — make the necessary changes and push this across the finish line. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) is wrong to resist job protections based on talent, not seniority. This bill proposes a fair compromise: It still allows preference for seniority, if two teachers are equally effective and one needs to be laid off.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), who’s been mostly quiet on these reforms, also needs to step up and help. Get behind Ruiz and provide the support to reach agreement so we can get this done soon and schools can prepare.

Our schools are built to educate children, not to provide a lifetime job guarantee for adults. This bill embraces that philosophy and, with a few tweaks, could bring a new day to New Jersey schools.

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