Advocates Make Case for NJ Teacher Tenure Reform

March 5, 2012

At the Legislature’s first public hearing on a major effort to overhaul teacher tenure, most advocates agreed on the urgent need to fix a century-old law, but many had reservations about the proposal’s fine print.

Speakers applauded the Senate Education Committee for the “courage” to take on an entrenched job protection, and said it was crucial to get change now before momentum evaporated. They said student achievement — and international competitiveness — depended on getting the best teachers in the classroom and weeding out those who couldn’t do the job.

The chairman of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, Jeffrey Scheininger, said his manufacturing company was “shocked” to find the vast majority of job applicants could not perform simple math with fractions. “We need a steady stream of literate and numerate young people,” he said. “Our economic stability depends on it.”

Monday’s legislative hearing marks a new momentum toward overhauling a system once designed to protect teachers from nepotism. Tenure’s critics have long charged the system makes it too costly and difficult to dismiss poor teachers. Even the state’s largest teachers union says it should be easier to fire incompetents. But many educators expressed concern that the proposed tenure bill relies on a new statewide method for evaluating teachers that has yet to be fully developed or tested.

The Christie administration has made reforming tenure a linchpin of its education agenda for the past two years, and its views are closely mirrored in the bill sponsored by Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, chairwoman of the Senate committee. Many argue that a 1909 law to protect teachers from patronage and arbitrary dismissal has morphed into what’s essentially a guarantee of a lifetime employment. At a time when numerous studies show the most important in-school factor affecting student learning is the quality of the teacher in the classroom, they say tenure needs to be revised to put children’s needs first.

“It’s time to reform tenure now,” said Brian Osborne, superintendent of schools in South Orange/Maplewood. He said he feared all the work designing the bill and improving teacher evaluations “will die on the vine if the legislation is not passed, and we’ll let the moment slip away.”

Lawmakers did not vote Monday. But Ruiz said she would revise her bill after reviewing all the comments, and hopes the Senate will pass it by July. An Assembly bill has yet to have a hearing.

Ruiz’s “TEACH NJ” bill would require new teachers to have a year of on-the-job mentoring plus three consecutive years of good evaluations to get the job protections of tenure. A teacher would lose tenure after two consecutive ineffective ratings. That’s a huge departure from the present system, in which teachers get the due process rights after three years and a day on the job. For new teachers, the bill would also weaken seniority rules during layoffs.

How to judge an effective teacher, however, remains an extremely thorny issue. The state is running a two-year pilot project to create new teacher evaluations, based half on classroom observations and half on student growth, judged partly by test scores. The New Jersey Education Association and other groups warned against making tenure dependent on effective ratings before the state found fair, objective ways to gauge teacher quality.

“It’s like building a house before the foundation is set,” said the NJEA’s lobbyist, Ginger Gold Schnitzer. The New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association also cautioned that new evaluations should be implemented and studied before final action is taken on tenure legislation.

The NJEA’s lobbyist warned that the bill denied teachers due process by giving them no chance to dispute poor evaluations in front of a neutral third party. Further, she said that in this era of unpredictable state aid and tight caps on local tax increases for school funding, districts would have a strong incentive to give teachers bad ratings, avoid giving them tenure and increase their flexibility in cutting staff.

The union has proposed its own plan, which it says would speed up tenure cases by putting them in front of an arbitrator instead of an administrative law judge. The Christie administration has dismissed that as a minor cosmetic change.

District chiefs often complain that trying to revoke tenure can cost six figures in legal fees and take years. The state says that in the past decade, only 17 teachers have lost tenure due to incompetence. The union notes that many teachers facing possible loss of tenure leave quietly instead of litigating.

Ruiz’s bill says that when budget cuts require reductions in force, a teacher’s rating should trump seniority rules and ineffective teachers will be let go first. That rule would apply only to new teachers.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker made an impassioned plea that an end of the last-in-first-out policy should apply to all teachers. “The urgency for change doesn’t apply just to new teachers,” he said. “The urgency for change applies to all children.”

Booker also supported the bill’s provision giving principals the power to choose their faculty, and avoid the so-called “dance of the lemons,” in which ineffective teachers are passed from school to school because it is difficult to dismiss them.

“I can’t imagine taking a job where I’m a leader and I can’t choose or influence who my team is,” Booker said.

Under the Ruiz bill, teachers who lost jobs in budget cuts would go into a “priority hiring pool” and continue getting paid for a year beginning with the 2014 school year. If they didn’t find positions in the district during that time, they would be placed on unpaid leave but still have priority in finding spots. Booker praised that as an “antidote to what we saw disastrously in New York, called the rubber room.”

Patrick Diegnan, D-Middlesex, chair¬man of the Assembly Education Committee, did not attend the 41?2-hour hearing but said he was still collecting evidence for a tenure bill of his own. He said he would focus on it in May and hoped to pass it out of his committee by July. He expressed concern, however, about basing tenure on evaluations based partly on test results, and said the state still had no reliable method for linking teachers to students’ scores.

Also Monday, Governor Christie announced his plan to create a task force that would adjust how the state’s public school funding formula counts the number of at-risk students in local districts.

Districts with students judged to be at-risk receive additional state funding per child. But Christie has challenged the use of free or reduced-price school lunch enrollment numbers to work out how to allocate additional educational funding.

The task force would “look at other objective measures of trying to define who that at-risk student is,” Christie said. It would have 180 days to give him recommendations on ways to measure the numbers of students who merit additional funds; its members have not been announced.