New Player At Table as Lawmakers Fine Tune Teacher Tenure Reform

June 8, 2012

With a new twist coming out of the state Assembly, Democratic legislators continued this week to fine tune language and negotiate compromises in an effort to come up with a teacher tenure reform bill by the end of June.

The most prominent bill has been sponsored by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) on the Senate side, and Ruiz and the Assembly sponsor, Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex), both said yesterday they were pressing ahead to have a bill ready for vote this month.

Coutinho said key amendments would be filed on Monday, including possibly those dealing with seniority rights and with the dismissal process of ineffective teachers.

“There has been a lot of activity and meetings, and I believe some progress,” said Coutinho, describing meetings with the main teachers unions, school associations and the Christie administration.

“We will have significant amendments of a bill that we believe works and can be signed into law,” he said.

But the twist came out of Coutinho’s own chamber, as state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) was finalizing his own bill yesterday that wouldn’t go as far as his colleagues.

One legislator’s bill wouldn’t always mean much, but Diegnan is chairman of the Assembly’s education committee where any final proposal will have to be posted and voted upon on.

The bill itself was not available yesterday, with staff saying it was in final review by the Office of Legislative Services, but a draft provided by Diegnan’s office and his own comments showed some key differences to resolve with Ruiz’s and Coutinho’s version.

For instance, where Ruiz’s bill would remove a teacher’s tenure after two years of poor evaluations, Diegnan’s bill would only trigger possible tenure charges after two years and compels them after three years. That would launch a process before a state arbitrator, with a ruling within six months.

There were also some key similarities, such as both bills requiring a fourth year of teaching before a teacher was to gain tenure. But even some of the language changes show distinct approaches. Where Ruiz’s bill would include a teacher evaluation category for “partially effective,” just above “ineffective,” Diegnan’s called that same category “approaching effective.”

Diegnan spoke about the measure earlier in the day in a forum before leaders of the New Jersey School Board Association.

“It has always been my position that tenure is important, and the cure would be much worse than the disease if we did away with tenure,” he said. “We never want a situation where the change in the political leadership in a town would put everyone’s job at risk.”

“However, I believe that we need to put in place a cost effective expeditious way to remove a teacher who is ineffective, and that will be the focus of my bill,” he said.

His proposal would also step lightly around the place of student achievement and test scores in the teacher’s evaluation, one of the more controversial issues in the whole debate. “It will be referred to, but it will not be a determining factor,” Diegnan said.

 Ruiz, who chairs the Senate education committee, yesterday said she would not comment on any competing proposals, maintaining only that she continues to meet with various stakeholders to come up with a consensus bill.

“I’m committed to finishing my bill,” she said during a break from a meeting of the Senate budget committee, of which she is also a member. “I am committed to a final version of my bill that puts teachers and children first.”

How this political chess game plays out is hard to predict, with Gov. Chris Christie obviously a central player as well.

He has pressed a reform bill that significantly ties tenure to student achievement as one of his priorities for the coming weeks, up there with a budget deal and his proposed 10 percent income tax cut. (However, he hedged on the income tax yesterday, saying in a morning speech that he now could support the Senate Democrats’ plan for property tax credits instead.)

Coutinho said Christie’s senior staff has been involved in the talks over tenure reform as well, as has acting education commissioner Chris Cerf.

“Is it a clear path, obviously not,” he said. “But hopefully next week, there will be significant activity. Are we close? We’ll know more in a week.”