Education in the Media
Sweeping N.J. Teacher's Tenure Bill Passes Legislature, Heads to Gov. Christie's DeskJune 25, 2012
TRENTON — New Jersey's public-school teachers and principals would have to ace their own yearly test if they want to attain job security under a bill that won final passage in the Legislature today.
The Assembly unanimously approvedlegislation sponsored by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, capping more than a year of debate on how best to reshape the first tenure law in the United States.
The Senate, which approved the bill last week, concurred shortly afterward with several amendments made in the lower house and sent the bill (A3060/S1455) to Gov. Chris Christie.
The Republican governor has long awaited the tenure bill, but he is not expected to sign it tonight.
Christie has advocated for sweeping changes to New Jersey's education system since the day he took office. An overhaul of the state's tenure law has been at the top of his list for two years, and would represent another victory for Christie in his ongoing quest to transform the way New Jersey runs.
The Republican governor has been highly supportive of the efforts led by Ruiz, a Democratic lawmaker from Essex County, despite putting forward his own proposals.
"By strengthening our professionals, we will ensure that our students have the best teachers in the classroom so that all children – regardless of their background, their ZIP code, or their socio-economic status – will have the opportunities they deserve for educational excellence." Ruiz said in a statement today
The teachers union fought against removing seniority rights.
Christie and the state's largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, have fought fiercely and often in the last two years, but both contributed to Ruiz's bill before it was introduced earlier this month, and the NJEA urged Christie to sign it today.
Stunned lawmakers jokingly suggested Ruiz head to the Middle East to broker a peace accord.
The bill would make a series of dramatic changes to a law first enacted in 1909. The most important would institute a new system of yearly evaluations for teachers and principals based partly on growth in student test scores a move that sets New Jersey on the same path as Indiana, New York, Washington, D.C., and others.
New teachers would have to complete a one-year mentorship program. They would then have to score positive reviews for two of the next three years before earning tenure. Teachers who already have tenure would keep it.
But any teacher, regardless of seniority, could be fired after two years of negative evaluations. Disputes would be handled through arbitration instead of administrative law judges, which proponents say would drive down costs for school districts that can get enmeshed in costly battles.
The legislation sets up four categories for grading teachers and principals: ineffective, partially effective, effective and highly effective. A combination of the first two would be grounds for losing tenure, though superintendents would have some leeway to give reprieves if they see signs of improvement.
Unlike in other states, the bill does not stipulate how much of an educator's grade would be based on improvements in student test scores. The bill only stipulates that test scores not be a "predominant" factor.
"It's a bit of a leap of faith," said Steve Wollmer, spokesman for the NJEA, but he said the state Department of Education has been running pilot evaluation programs in several districts, and some appear to be working well. "Everyone agreed that we needed to do something."
The state's more than 100,000 teachers would also get in-classroom observations as part of their yearly review, and other academic data beyond test scores could also be used as factors.
At every step of the legislative process, Ruiz's bill won plaudits from both sides of the aisle and unanimous votes. Still, some critics worry that unless the evaluation systems are carefully developed, school district officials may find ways to fire teachers for political or personal reasons.
The state Department of Education has not yet released its model evaluation rubrics, but Wollmer said it is likely to release several models based on its pilot programs.
Others worry that the bill doesn't go far enough in revamping the tenure law. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a visible advocate for education reform, criticized Ruiz's bill last week because it leaves untouched what are known as "seniority rights."
Also known as "last in, first out," those rights protect the longest-serving teachers from layoffs when spending must be cut. Booker said that unless seniority rights were scrapped, failing urban districts would not make much progress.
Ruiz's first draft also called for "mutual consent" hiring, but that was left out of the final version. Principals would have had to agree to any teacher sent to their school by the district; proponents said that change would end the forced placements of problem teachers.
Christie has also called for "mutual consent" hiring. And he had pushed hard to end to seniority rights, but the NJEA fought to keep them in the final bill. Ruiz accepted.
She stressed that taking ideas from every stakeholder was the only way to get a tenure bill to become a tenure law.
"This bill represents collaboration, but more than that it represents extraordinary progress," she said.
The changes would begin this fall in a small number of districts. They would become the norm statewide by the fall of 2014.