Senate Hearing to Refocus Attention on Tenure Reform

February 29, 2012

The debate over tenure reform in New Jersey is likely to be back on the front burner next week, as a high-profile bill goes before a key Senate committee with some key questions far from resolved.

The legislation, sponsored by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), would revamp how teachers receive and lose tenure. Titled 

"Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of NJ" (TEACHNJ), the bill has been scheduled for hearing by the Senate education committee on Monday.

Ruiz, who chairs the committee, said the panel would not be voting on the bill on Monday, but only accepting testimony as to its strengths and weaknesses and suggestions for possible improvements.

She did not set a timeframe for when she hopes the bill does come to a vote.

"We want this to be a very open and public discussion, where people can weigh in on any of the points important to them," Ruiz said yesterday in an interview.

Many legislative leaders and observers have predicted the bill will pass in some form this year, and Gov. Chris Christie has repeatedly called tenure reform a core priority of his education agenda, even offering general praise of Ruiz's bill.

But there remain several points of contention, even after Ruiz spent the better part of the past six months drafting the bill and meeting with various stakeholders. And how those are resolved will dominate the coming discussion.

Ruiz's bill would do away with the current system that grants tenure automatically after three years. Instead, teachers would only get tenure after three years of positive evaluations. They would lose it after two consecutive negative evaluations.

Part of those evaluations would be based on student performance, part on classroom observations.

But some big and small details are still in flux, from who does the evaluations to how they could be appealed before an administrative law judge or arbitration panel.

The New Jersey Education Association, after sounding like an ally, is starting to criticize the bill. It has raised worries that the appeals process would only allow the procedures behind the evaluations to be contested, not the judgments themselves.

"It keeps the word tenure, but it denies any due process that makes it meaningful," said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the union's chief lobbyist.

Gold said the union would continue to meet with Ruiz to try to work out differences, including this week, but she was quick with a long list of other differences yesterday.

She cited the bill's measure that would require so-called “mutual consent” between teacher and principal for a teacher to be placed in a school. If not placed, the teacher would have a year to find a placement or potentially lose his or her job.

Another sticking point is the limited use of seniority in determining whether a teacher is laid off or not, as well as ongoing questions about the teacher evaluation system that will be used to determine if a teacher receives tenure in the first place.

That system is now under development, being piloted in 11 districts this year and as many as another 30 next year. In a related development, the state announced yesterday that it would contract with Rutgers Graduate School of Education to evaluate the pilot in the next year.

The union has been cool to the pilot, especially its plans to include student test scores as part of the teacher evaluations. But Schnitzer said whatever the resulting system, it should be addressed in the law as well.

"Doing tenure reform without teacher evaluation in place is like putting the cart before the horse," Schnitzer said yesterday. "If the goal is truly to improve the quality of the teachers and not just punish people, how do you move this through without the evaluation piece in place?"

These are all sticky issues for Ruiz, who repeatedly says the bill is a work in progress and comments that hearings like Monday's will provide an opportunity for suggested changes.

The state senator would not get into further details as to what those changes could be, but the bill as now crafted reflects the tight-rope she is walking.

For example, on the hot button topic of seniority no longer determining the order of layoffs one that has vexed the NJEA from the start Ruiz's bill would only have it apply to new teachers.

On another front, the bill would prohibit the kind of public release of teacher evaluation data that has set off storms of protest in New York City, where individual ratings for 18,000 teachers were posted on line.

Instead, Ruiz's bill includes this language: "Information related to the evaluation of a particular employee shall be maintained by the school district, shall be confidential, and shall not be accessible to the public pursuant to P.L.1963, c.73 (C.47:1A-1 et seq.), as amended and supplemented."

Ruiz said yesterday that she has been accommodating in making the law first and foremost about improving teaching. "From one corner to another, this is about supporting the most important profession in New Jersey," she said.