Inquirer Editorial: No time for politics

Opinion | The Philadelphia Inquirer
04/18/11

After months of tough talk about reform, Gov. Christie has finally delivered his proposal to drastically change New Jersey’s education system.

There are good ideas in the package of seven bills that Christie sent to the Legislature last week that would raise the bar on teacher performance. He wants to shake up the teaching establishment by changing how teachers are paid, evaluated, and fired.

If the bills are approved, teachers will no longer wear tenure like a badge of honor after only three years on the job. Instead, they would undergo periodic evaluations and it would be easier to fire those who fail to pass muster. A similar measure has been proposed in Pennsylvania. That’s good, too. Tenure has made it difficult and costly for districts across the nation to remove bad teachers. Changes in how it is awarded are needed.

Whether Christie can sell his package remains to be seen. It does have some flaws that must be addressed, including a provision that would eliminate extra pay for teachers with advanced degrees. Teachers should be compensated in some way for the cost of their advanced education.

Christie faces a formidable adversary in the politically connected New Jersey Education Association. Unfortunately, he has missed few opportunities since taking office to antagonize the union. Just last week, he called it “a moneyed special interest that bullies and thugs its way” to get what it wants.

Tough talk won’t get his bills passed. Nor is that in the best interest of children. It’s time for the governor to tone down the rhetoric and work with the NJEA.

Democrats, who control both legislative houses, say that they have their own reform agenda. Excellent. Now they should work with Christie to find common ground.

His plan largely falls in line with reforms backed by President Obama to improve failing schools by drastically changing the status quo. Both he and Obama want to hold educators more accountable for student achievement.

Christie’s proposal would evaluate teachers based on performance and consider factors such as test scores and classroom observations by administrators. Those are reasonable benchmarks to determine effectiveness.

Seniority would be eliminated and districts would have more discretion to consider layoffs during a budget crisis. Teachers could earn merit pay for working with at-risk children, an incentive to encourage the best teachers to work with the neediest students. Teachers with certificates in subjects with a shortage of instructors could also get extra pay.

Christie and others are right when they say that just giving struggling schools additional funding is not the answer. But that doesn’t mean New Jersey can shirk its responsibility to provide adequate resources.

New Jersey has 200 schools designated as failing to educate more than 100,000 students daily. For their sake, Christie and the Legislature must reach agreement.

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