Education Reform Work in Progress

December 30, 2011

TRENTON — With New Jersey facing a crucial period in which its future will be decided, New Jersey Press Media newspapers has taken a hard look at a number of areas where the Garden State will be experiencing significant change. For this 10-part series, we interviewed experts, local difference-makers and entrepreneurs about what New Jersey will look like and what it could or should look like. Today’s topic: Education.

If Gov. Chris Christie and other education reform advocates do get their way as they expect, New Jersey will end teacher tenure as permanent job security, require more of high school students so they can get a new job or go to college, and come up with new ways to judge and track students and teachers.

In addition, there could be more charter school or private-public schools in urban areas, and many school districts could see an end to annual budget votes.

Various administrative and legislative officials confirm that much of that agenda could become law in the first half of 2012.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, a Democrat from Essex County who heads the Senate Education Committee, believes that the political conversation has changed and there is growing momentum for an assortment of reform measures.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from, as a union rep, from the principal’s association or a teacher, we’re all talking about what needs to get done to ensure we have great student outcomes,” Ruiz said in an interview.

Christie has long said education reform is one of the “big things” his administration has set out to do, and he had declared 2011 as the “Year of Education Reform.”

In January, Christie hosted a screening of the movie, “Waiting for Superman,” which depicts parents and their children desperate to win a spot in a charter school.

Then in April, Christie gave an address about education to the Brookings Institution, a prominent Washington D.C.-based think tank, which was attended by national experts.

He met with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at Drumthwacket, the governor’s official residence.


Christie has not passed a signature piece of education legislation so far. But the Republican governor contends he is nonetheless making progress with the Democratic-controlled Legislature and results will be there in 2012.

“There’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes, a lot of conversations that have been going on,” Christie told one of his town hall meetings in Teaneck this month.

“We’re working on it. We’ll get there,” he added.

The question is when and what will it look like when it’s done.

A proposed teacher tenure reform remains in legislative negotiations, six months after the bill was initially set to pass. A much-lobbied for school voucher bill appears stymied, and charter school and other measures are still pending.

But the Christie administration has moved on other fronts:

The state is testing ways to measure teacher effectiveness in 11 school districts. Officials hope to roll out a new faculty evaluation system statewide next September for full testing.

The state is in the process of setting new standards for high school graduates — called college and career readiness standards. That effort may ultimately result in a tougher high school proficiency test required for students to earn their diploma. That initiative has long been eyed by acting state Department of Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf.

The state is building out its data system that will help it track test scores in other data in each of the 2,452 schools in the state. Meanwhile, Cerf has reorganized his department and New Jersey is in the process of rewriting general rules to streamline education.

Michael A. Vrancik, a lobbyist for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said he thinks the work done this year will soon yield major changes.

“You’ve got a commissioner who is radically reforming the Department of Education and is setting the stage for these later reforms,” Vrancik said. “You see some shoots in the ground, and you think nothing’s going on, but there’s a lot happening underneath the surface.”


There is some important legislation that is expected to move soon:

A bill that would allow for public-private partnerships and more charter schools in large urban school districts may soon be on the fast track. It is sponsored by state Sen. Donald Norcross, brother of South Jersey Democrat George E. Norcross III.

The bill will provide for the expanded alternative education in five school districts, which have more than 10,000 students and have the most failing schools. The bill would allow the school district, parents or teachers to petition the state to convert to charter schools. The bill would also let districts create up to two new schools as public-private partnerships.

Another bill, ready for a vote in the Senate and the Assembly, would provide communities options to move school board elections to November and eliminate budget votes for any districts that keep within the state property tax cap. It would end more than a century of voting tradition in the Garden State.

But Christie’s main target, tenure reform for the state’s 94,329 teachers, remains a work in progress.

Even if it were to pass in the next few months, school districts still need a way to evaluate teachers so they can then determine whether a teacher should receive, or lose, the coveted job guarantees.

Christie has proposed ending teacher tenure as a lifetime guarantee. Instead, he wants to replace the system with one whereby tenure is granted and kept only when staff passes teaching evaluations.

Christie, at his Teaneck event, praised Ruiz for taking a “laboring role” in negotiating with the various interest groups.

Ruiz said in an interview she continues to hold ongoing meetings with the teachers unions and others about how best to reform tenure rules so that good teachers are protected and ineffective teachers are dealt with.

“This is a huge topic,” Ruiz said. “It was important to me to engage every single person in the conversation and have a thoughtful process before we revolutionize the way we’ve been practicing what we do in New Jersey.”

Charter school expansion, however, does remain a key point of contention, as parents remain concerned that money taken from local school districts to pay for new charter schools will hurt local schools.

Ruiz said in an interview she would favor a bill that would give communities a say on whether new charter schools are approved.

But perhaps the biggest change that will affect education reform in 2012 is the apparent détente between the state’s largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, and the state’s top power structure.

Christie and Cerf have become a bad-cop, good-cop duo in dealing with the NJEA.

For now, Christie has stopped issuing political fusillades against the union during press conferences, while Cerf has been talking with NJEA leaders about policy changes.

The NJEA has also reversed course and met to talk with George Norcross. Last spring, the NJEA launched a series of ads against Norcross, and he responded by holding a press conference to blast the union.