Fine-Tuning a Controversial Tenure Proposal - Quietly

September 20, 2011

The Democrats' leading bill to change teacher tenure in New Jersey is unlikely to get another public viewing until after the election, but its chief sponsor has begun a series of private meetings to fine-tune and amend the controversial measure.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) always claimed that the bill she filed this summer was just a starting point. In some of her first extensive comments on the bill since then, the Senate education committee chairman yesterday said the work to revise it has begun in meetings she started last week with stakeholders and others.

"We have given people enough time to get their hands around it and study the bill," she said in her Trenton office. "Now we're having open dialogue as to what stakeholders think works and doesn't work and how to change it."

The amendments won't necessarily be at the core of the bill, she said, which would revamp how teachers earn and retain tenure protections. In its current version, Ruiz's bill would grant tenure after a teacher completed four years with satisfactory reviews and take it away after two consecutive years of unsatisfactory grades.

It would also include school-based teams that would lead the evaluations and decisions on both hiring and dismissing a teacher, as well as calls for interventions and support for teachers who have subpar reviews.

Positive Reaction

So far, Ruiz said the reactions in the meetings have been mostly positive, with a host of issues raised. Some of the discussion has centered on the school-based teams, which in her bill would be made up of administrators and teachers within a school. She said yesterday that could change.

"We're starting to think that the teacher would be a master a teacher who would come from a pool in a district, not necessarily from the school itself," she said.

"That's one of the things that has come out of the conversations that I think is very constructive," she said.

The comments came after the Senate committee met with state officials yesterday to get an update on the state's pilot program to test a new teacher evaluation system that would include student performance measures as a formal part of the reviews. That pilot launched this fall in 11 districts, with the administration planning to take it statewide next school year.

Ruiz's tenure bill called TEACHNJ (Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey) would provide a statutory framework in which the new evaluation system would operate. But the Newark senator said her bill can still proceed, even without the formal evaluation system yet in place, and she predicted it could be ready for at least a Senate vote in November and December, after the election in the legislature's lame duck session.

When asked her prediction of passage during the lame duck session, she said: "It has got to happen."

The meetings until then are to help lay the groundwork and build support, she said. All the major stakeholder groups, including the teachers' unions, will be included, she noted.

An Extraordinary Undertaking

"This is a extraordinary task we are undertaking, and there has to be huge buy-in," she said. "We're not sure at the end of the day that they will support the bill as it stands, but it is important they are part of the conversation that defined some elements of the bill."

Some of the lobbyists who have met with Ruiz so far agreed the meetings have been constructive, and gave her credit for giving them the time to flesh out their comments and concerns.

"I told her how much we appreciate her taking this on and involving us," said Michael Vrancik, government affairs director for the New Jersey School Boards Association, who met with Ruiz last Thursday.

"It was a good working session, and we came away with the sense that where she could, she would address our concerns," he said.

Among the lingering ones for his members is the lack of school board role in the personnel decisions, besides approving the eventual evaluation system. He also worried that there wasn't language in the bill that would prevent evaluations to be included in collective bargaining.

And there is always the money issue, especially for the mandated professional development for teachers with subpar evaluations. "When times are tight fiscally, there are always concerns that there could be costs associated with this," he said.

Tom Dunn Jr., a lobbyist with the state's superintendents association, said he raised similar concerns with Ruiz about the school-based teams, pointing out they also leave superintendents out of the decision-making. He asked that the teams be permitted but not required.

"It sounds good as an idea, but there are some places where it just may not work," said Dunn.

Ruiz did not address those specific issues yesterday, but she said nothing is off the table. Or almost nothing. One of the biggest differences between her bill and that promoted by Gov. Chris Christie is the timeline for stripping a teacher of tenure. Christie has proposed it be after one year of unsatisfactory reviews. Ruiz insisted yesterday that it must be at least two years.

"I want to be sure this isn't just a one-time thing, and there is enough opportunity for teacher to grow," she said. "If we are giving students an opportunity to grow and learn, we should give teachers the same respect."

Still, she wasn't even adamant about that, saying there remained much work to be done in the months ahead. She said the next version of the bill would likely come in November, with opportunity for further input in public hearings after that.

"Things will obviously change," she said. "Some amendments to the bill are already being made from the conversations we're having. But I want to give everyone a sufficient opportunity to digest it."