Fine Print: Sen Buono's Teacher Quality Bill

December 8, 2011

What it is: State Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), the outgoing Senate Majority Leader, has introduced a bill that would put in a place a statewide system for evaluating and supporting teachers. Modeled after the one used in Cincinnati public schools, the system would rely on peer evaluations, teacher observations, and student portfolios in gauging teacher effectiveness.

What it means: The bill is counter to those being proffered by both Gov. Chris Christie's administration and Democratic legislators, who are pushing a complete overhaul of not just teacher evaluation which puts heavy emphasis on student test scores but of how it is used in determining tenure.

What else it means: Buono remains on the short list of those said to be thinking about making a run for governor in 2013, and education has been among the issues she has been most outspoken on. But she also appears on the outs within her own party's Senate leadership, voted out as its Majority Leader after the November election. That makes this bill's chances shorter, but it also speaks to the lack of a clear consensus within the Democratic membership as to what is the best approach.

What it's not: The proposal ramps way down the reliance on test scores that is the underpinning of Christie's proposals, as well as proposed tenure reforms being developed by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) as part of a bill soon to be reintroduced. "Test scores have a place, but they should also give us pause," Buono said. "When we want to make high-stakes decisions about teachers and students, let's make sure we are doing this the right way."

Academic underpinnings: Buono said she has worked on this proposal for the better part of a year, meeting with academics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, among others. And it led to a unique press announcement, one that listed a number of academic studies. Typically, legislative press releases do not come with footnotes.

NJEA similarities: The bill bears some resemblance to what the New Jersey Education Association has proposed as a tenure reform to counter Christie's proposal. The NJEA would include an added year for a teacher to get intensive training before receiving tenure, something that Buono has also proposed, and the union has long been critical of the emphasis on test scores as a measure of teacher performance. Buono adds in another pro-union piece: the system would ultimately be part of collective bargaining. But Buono said the NJEA was not involved in the crafting of her plan, and in fact disagreed on some pieces. The NJEA concurs this is not its bill and that it is helping draft another one for introduction soon.

Political prospects: Buono said she's not placing any bets on her proposal in the near future, including the current lame duck session, but hopes it will spark further discussions, including with Ruiz. And she knows her diminished role in the Democratic leadership doesn't help. "But I'm going to be as outspoken as ever, if not more so," she said.

Not done yet: Coupled with her proposal for a fourth year of training, Buono said she hopes to complete a package of bills on educator effectiveness, the next one focusing on evaluating principals. "I have a draft almost ready," she said.