Critics Say Education Reform Bill Signed by Gov. Christie Doesn't Fix State's Biggest Issues
Salvador Rizzo and Jessica Calefati | The Star-Ledger
TRENTON — Everyone in Trenton agrees: The state’s brand-new law overhauling teacher tenure is one for the history books.
Gov. Chris Christie says it bringslandmark reform to a century-old system that protects mediocre teachers. For Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), it’s "one of the most significant pieces of legislation this Legislature has acted upon."
Even Christie’s arch-enemies at the New Jersey Education Association like the new policy, which subjects teachers and principals to yearly evaluations that will make it tougher to gain job security and easier to lose it.
But just as the measure enjoyed near-universal support when Christie signed it earlier this month, there is also a consensus among leading Democrats and Republicans that it doesn’t go far enough for inner-city schools.
Those reformers may be out of luck this year.
Interviews with administration officials, Democratic lawmakers and NJEA leaders reveal that whatever momentum there was for education reform has mostly fizzled. Instead, they’re back to bickering over how much teachers should earn and which ones should be laid off first when budgets are tight. And nobody’s budging.
Even Christie’s education commissioner, Christopher Cerf, isn’t satisfied.
"If this is our one shot at reform, this is a terrible disappointment," Cerf told a panel of lawmakers before the bill passed, lamenting that nothing would be done to address seniority rights that guard the longest-serving teachers from layoffs.
The same issue spurred Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), a staunch Christie ally, to introduce a bill ending seniority rights days after the governor’s signing ceremony.
And in Newark, Mayor Cory Booker and School Superintendent Cami Anderson weren’t very impressed with the new tenure policy, arguing that real reform will take more work.
Cerf, Anderson and other Democrats say younger teachers can be more motivated, and losing them automatically to budget cuts hurts urban schools. But Democratic lawmakers aren’t eager to tackle what’s left on Christie’s wish list — not seniority, not merit pay, not vouchers, not an expansion of charter schools.
They first want to see how schools adapt to the new tenure law.
"Let’s see if this works, let’s give it a shot," said Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden), a key player in the tenure debate. Greenwald said he won’t dismiss any proposal out of hand, but he said some of Christie’s ideas — like expanding charter schools into the suburbs — have led to "disaster."
"We should be working on things like tenure reform, where we got wide agreement from all the interested parties," Greenwald said, "not on expanding on some ideological ground charter schools in areas that aren’t served by them."
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said that "while the (tenure) reform was terrific and made advancements not seen in 100 years" there is plenty left to do. The administration will review Kyrillos’s bill carefully, he said.
Another Christie spokesman, Kevin Roberts, added: "It’s easy to focus on what was left out of tenure reform but at the same time there are still many other aspects of public education reform that can be acted on apart from personnel changes."
When he laid out his education priorities earlier this year, Christie put teacher evaluations at the top of his list. He got them, but it seemingly cost him everything else he wanted, including an end to seniority and higher pay for teachers in difficult subjects, also known as "merit pay."
Meanwhile, the NJEA lobbied hard to secure everything it had sketched out last year: a four-year tenure track, a one-year mentorship program, transferring employment disputes from the court system to arbitrators, and leaving seniority rights as is.
"We did our research," said NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer. "More rational people prevailed."
Wollmer said seniority should be a moot issue now that yearly evaluations are being adopted. A teacher who performs poorly for two years could be fired, he said, and that’s the best way to weed out bad apples.
To the NJEA, Wollmer said, the biggest question is figuring out what the teacher evaluations will look like and how much weight will be given to standardized test scores. Merit pay and Christie’s other proposals are non-starters, he said.
"We welcome the discussion but off of what we know we don’t think those ideas are the way to go," he said. "They’re not going to result in major changes — there’s no research showing that."
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the architect of the new law, initially proposed allowing teachers who had tenure before the effective date of the bill to keep seniority rights. Those who got tenure after would not have the protection.
Ruiz told The Star-Ledger editorial board in May she crafted it that way hoping to coax the NJEA into a compromise. But when the powerful union — and the lawmakers who support them — would not budge, Ruiz amended the bill for fear it would not pass.
"I can sit here and fold my arms and say it’s not enough, but then we get nothing done," Ruiz said of her decision.
The New Jersey School Boards Association, which long called for changes to teachers’ seniority rights, felt crushing disappointment when it learned of Ruiz’s decision, said spokesman Frank Belluscio.
"If you look at the numbers in terms of enrollment trends, reductions in force are going to have to be made in the future in New Jersey," he said. "It’s essential that districts be able to decide whom to lay off based on performance rather than time on the job."