N.J. Education Commissioner Likes Tenure Reform Bill, Wants Pay Changes

February 7, 2012

TRENTON — New Jersey’s top education official said Tuesday there is much he likes about a Democratic-sponsored teacher tenure reform bill, although he stopped short of endorsing the measure.

Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said he is glad the bill, if enacted into law, would end tenure as lifetime job security, and require that teacher ratings play a significant role in determining who would be let go during layoffs.

But Cerf acknowledged that the bill does not contain provisions for merit pay, long advocated by Gov. Chris Christie’s administration. Instead, Cerf said, he hopes merit pay will be allowed by the Legislature and then eventually become embedded in teacher contracts through the local negotiation process.

Cerf made the comments during a meeting with the Asbury Park Press editorial board, one day after state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, introduced what, if approved, would be landmark teacher tenure legislation for New Jersey, although about half of the states have enacted some form of tenure reform.

Ruiz has been meeting with various interest groups, including the state’s largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, for about a year. Ruiz has been praised by Christie, a Republican, and Cerf reiterated that praise on Tuesday.

“Let’s give a lot of credit to Sen. Ruiz. I’m a Democrat, this is a hard issue for Democrats to carry,” Cerf said. “She is carrying it ably, thoughtfully and well.”

That the bill would create a mechanism for teachers to lose tenure protections if they are found to be ineffective is “a big deal,” Cerf said.

Regarding layoffs, Cerf said it is illegal for a school board to keep teachers based on their ability, and must instead lay off according to seniority. He said changing that law — called “last in, first out” — will be a huge cultural shift within local education.

“The system is decrepit and it’s not working,” Cerf said.

Cerf said he prefers what he termed “differential pay” as a separate measure passed by the Legislature.

Cerf noted that teachers currently get pay raises only based on “steps and lanes” in contracts — steps for longevity and lanes for additional education beyond a bachelor’s degree.

But research shows that teachers do not necessarily get better over time or with advanced degrees, Cerf said.

“We uniquely do reward teachers, by law, for two considerations that are relatively unlinked” to student performance, he said.

School districts should be able to offer different pay to teachers for a variety of reasons, Cerf said.

“If I want to pay more money to a teacher to work in a high-challenge school, I ought to be able to do that,” Cerf said. “If … a great teacher has been recruited for another school district, (the district) ought to be able to pay a retention bonus.

“Let everything else work out at the bargaining table. If they want to do performance bonuses … I just want this profession to have the opportunity to use compensation as a management tool,” Cerf added.

Cerf also reiterated his longstanding opposition to allowing voters in a school district to decide whether or not to approve a charter school, even though a bill that would require just that passed an Assembly committee last week.

“I’ve never met the situation where monopolists, given the chance to vote for competition would do that, ever,” Cerf said. “The people who tend to be good at organizing people to vote would be against mucking around with the current system.”

The Ruiz tenure bill, which contains provisions that have also been proposed by Christie and Cerf, would:

Require teachers to be classified in one of four categories after their annual evaluation: highly effective, effective, partially ineffective and ineffective.

Allow tenure to be revoked for teachers and assistant principals rated in the bottom two categories if they did not improve the following year.

Force teachers deemed fully or partially ineffective to face layoffs, even if they have seniority, a key element demanded by education reform advocates. But school district needs would be the first criteria in determining whom to let go.

The bill would also affect other personnel areas. For example, principals will have final say over whether a teacher is hired for or transferred to their school.

Tenured teachers who are fired for cause would face an expedited appeal timeline, with the final determination to be made by an administrative law judge.