Education Reform Limps Along in Lame Duck

December 2, 2011

The legislature's lame duck session that was expected to be busy with education reform debate is looking sleepier by the day.

Senate committees yesterday met in the Statehouse amid a lively rally outside for a proposed school voucher program, but there was little movement on that or any other key education bills that had been high on the agenda.

That's not to say there weren't plenty of meetings behind closed doors that could quickly change the landscape. State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), who is seeking to shepherd through a tenure reform bill, was party to many of them, and late yesterday was not giving up hope for this month for her bill at least. She said long-awaited amendments would be filed in the next week.Senate committees yesterday met in the Statehouse amid a lively rally outside for a proposed school voucher program, but there was little movement on that or any other key education bills that had been high on the agenda.

But some prominent Assembly Democrats were not as hopeful that the tenure bill, with or without amendments, would even get a hearing in their house before the session ends on January 9.

State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly's education committee, said earlier in the day that he would not hear the bill in his committee before the next session.

"I have never believed this should be done in lame duck, especially when all that is really changing is the calendar," Diegan said, referring to the fact that there will be little change in the legislature next session.

He said it was too big an issue to press for now, adding that "some form of tenure reform bill" would be heard and voted on by next spring. But then Diegnan said he continued to oppose some of the key tenets of Ruiz's bill, including a central one that tenure would be granted and taken away based on a teacher's record of job evaluations.

"My hope is we can submit one bill that we can all agree upon," he said. "But I think there will be significant changes [from Ruiz's current bill]."

State Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex), sponsor of Ruiz's companion bill in the Assembly, said he was not counting on lame duck action, either.

"I do believe we will have meaningful tenure reform, but maybe not necessarily in lame duck," he said. "I'm still working it hard, but it will not be end of the world if not in lame duck. I would be extremely disappointed if not before the budget break [in the spring], though."

Coutinho is also sponsor of several charter school bills that would tighten restrictions on the experimental schools, as well as expand the authorizing process for new ones. But he didn't expect much imminent movement on those, either. "I don't see anything significant happening in lame duck in terms of education," he said.

After chairing the Senate education committee's meeting in the morning, Ruiz was still meeting with colleagues and advocates into the late afternoon, in what she said was her third round of meetings regarding her bill. She said action in the next month remained possible, but conceded it will take some prodding.

"I think we are a little ways away," she said. "I am doing a lot of work on this. I think we have done the due diligence on the policy, and now we have to do the politics."

When told Diegnan's comments, Ruiz said: "I don't think any one person will dictate how this goes."

The next step, she said, would be introduction of amendments to her current bill, ones that she said would not stray far from the central principles but hopefully address some concerns.

Called the Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey Act (TEACHNJ), the bill as it now stands would require teachers to have three consecutive years of satisfactory evaluations to gain tenure and face the loss of it after two years of unsatisfactory reviews. It would also do away with some seniority protections for new teachers, and require so-called "mutual consent" of both teacher and principal for teacher transfers.

Ruiz said those would not much change. "Some of the amendments will be cleaned up, and some others will be more comprehensive in terms of definitions and things like that," she said.

Among those meeting with Ruiz yesterday was Ginger Gold, chief lobbyist for the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). The union has been critical of Ruiz's bill, pushing its own reform proposal that would streamline the process for getting rid of poor teachers but leave the basic protections in place.

"There are areas where we agree, and there are areas where we disagree that we are still working on," Gold said after the meeting. "It was constructive. It's always good to talk."