Reform Plan Tops Agenda as Teachers Prepare for Convention in Atlantic City

November 7, 2011

Thousands of teachers will be welcomed by the New Jersey Education Association at its annual convention Thursday and Friday in Atlantic City with an education-reform plan that the union also is taking to the Statehouse in Trenton this month.

The NJEA's proposals, if they get support in the Legislature, will go up against bills already introduced and supported by Gov. Chris Christie and could make for a lively post-election lame-duck session. The NJEA also is challenging legislators to be a "Teacher for a Day" in their districts, during which they will write lesson plans, teach classes and maybe even take on cafeteria duty.

"Anyone who votes on these bills should do the job first to see what it involves," NJEA spokesman Steve Baker said.

NJEA Executive Director Vincent Giordano alluded to the proposals last month during the New Jersey School Boards Conference when he said the union would endorse a plan to add a fourth year of teaching before tenure is granted, but only if the first year is treated as a residency in which the teacher is matched with an experienced teacher and the second year included a mentor.

But the NJEA's plan also includes other proposals, such as full access to preschool and full-day kindergarten, and raising the age of mandatory school attendance from 16 to 18. The NJEA supports the expansion of the public-school choice program and more accountability for charter schools. But it opposes the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act that would provide scholarships for students in failing public schools to attend private schools.

Baker said the association does not have a legislative sponsor yet for its proposals, called "Educators in the Lead: Real Reform for Real Results." He said there are some existing bills they could support, but that some - including the tenure and evaluation proposals - are different enough from existing bills that they would require entirely new legislation.

Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, Union, has introduced a bill that would extend the tenure process to four years but does not include the residency provisions. Christie has supported a plan that would give teachers tenure in three years but would remove it if they subsequently have two years of poor evaluations.

"We want our membership to have a voice in the process and be part of the discussion," Baker said.

The theme of this year's convention is "Creating a Better Tomorrow." Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf is scheduled to speak at the conference Friday morning. He said last month at the school boards conference that he would be willing to listen to any proposals but said the costs also must be addressed.

Baker said the cost of the proposed teacher evaluation should be addressed, since student test scores are a major component. He said that since not every grade or subject is tested, the cost to add new tests would be considerable and might not be the best use of state funds.

"We want the discussion to be around the best ways to provide education," Baker said. "Obviously, we have to ask how we will pay for them. But it is the Legislature that will decide what are the priorities and what is worth the investment."

New Jersey School Boards Association spokesman Frank Belluscio said the NJEA plan has some proposals the school boards group would support and some it would not, as well as others it would have to study further.

The School Boards Association supports renewable tenure every five years and teacher evaluations that are fair but grounded in student performance.

"The (NJEA plan) does not get to the root of the problem - lifetime job protection that does not exist in other employment areas and which makes it exceedingly difficult to remove a teacher for poor job performance," Belluscio wrote in a email.

He said the School Boards Association acknowledges the benefits of preschool and full-day kindergarten, but added that the economic climate has forced some districts to consider scaling back full-day kindergarten to half-day programs. The state provides aid for half-day programs only, and only about 130 low-income districts have publicly funded preschool.

The NJEA reform plan

Following are highlights from the "Educators in the Lead: Real Reform for Real Results" plan proposed by the New Jersey Education Association:

Tenure: Tenure after four years with a first-year residency and second-year mentoring

Evaluations: Four times a year for nontenured teachers, twice a year for tenured teachers, with student test scores as a lesser factor

School choice: Increase magnet schools and public-school choice. Expand accountability for charter schools. Opposes Opportunity Scholarship Act to pay for students in failing public schools to attend private schools, but supports letting private schools convert to charters.

Early childhood: Get funding for preschool expansion back on track and require every district to offer full-day kindergarten

High school graduation: Make school compulsory until age 18 or graduation - rather than 16 - to reduce dropouts

Parental involvement: Give parents 24-hour unpaid leave to attend school functions during the work day without jeopardizing their jobs

Source: New Jersey Education Association