Two Years in the Making, Ruiz Tenure Reform Bill Inches Closer to Law

June 19, 2012

Teacher tenure reform took a big step toward passage in the Legislature yesterday, as advocates across the spectrum lined up behind a Senate bill that some predicted could replace New Jersey’s century-old tenure law within the week.

It was a regular love-fest before the Senate budget committee for the bill crafted by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the Senate’s education chairman, who has been working on the proposal for the better part of two years.

Support came from groups as disparate the New Jersey Education Association and the conservative New Jersey League of American Families.

Democratic committee members unanimously praised it, as did Republicans.

“We’re going to next send you to the Middle East to take on the peace process,” state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) told Ruiz.

That’s not to say passage in the Legislature is guaranteed. A competing Assembly bill sponsored by state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex) still stands ready for vote in that chamber, with some key differences from Ruiz’s bill.

While both bills would tie tenure directly to teacher evaluations, Diegnan’s bill wouldn’t go quite as far as Ruiz’s and would give teachers greater protections and grounds to appeal.

Gov. Chris Christie also has yet to say whether he would sign either bill, no sure bet given that neither measure deals with seniority rights for teachers, one of the core issues Christie has long said was a priority.

But the Republicans’ unanimous endorsement in the Senate committee yesterday, including some of its most conservative members, appeared to signal that the governor was willing to the support the measure.

And there was indication that the Assembly may move the measure in concert with Diegnan as well, especially with the NJEA not sounding like it would get in the way. The NJEA also supported Diegnan’s bill last week, and indicated the differences were relatively easy to bridge. Nonetheless, some Democratic leaders also said the union’s support yesterday provides cover for Democrats to get behind Ruiz’s bill.

Diegnan wasn’t ready to give up his points just yet, but he sounded conciliatory about merging his bill into the Assembly version of Ruiz’s, now being sponsored by state Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex).

“In deference to her, as she’s been working on this a long time,” Diegnan said in a telephone interview.

The Assemblyman, who chairs the education committee, said there were still some issues to resolve that he said he would not discuss publicly yet, but said he was confident agreement could be reached.

One of the biggest points of difference is the explicit language in Diegnan’s bill that would prohibit student test scores from being a determining factor in a teacher’s evaluation. Ruiz’s bill only speaks to “multiple measures” of student achievement being required.

“It has always been my goal to have one bill, and I still think we will,” Diegnan said last night.

There isn’t much time, but it appeared the Ruiz bill was now moving to full Senate vote on Thursday. The Assembly could take it up next week, before the Legislature leaves for its summer break.

The hearing yesterday wasn’t without a few concerns, although they appeared to deal with peripheral issues, as well as how the law would be implemented.

Leaders of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association raised a number of questions, including whether the state’s data system was yet up to the task of measuring student progress, one of the key pieces of a teacher’s evaluation.

“As data availability improves, we will be more confident about data use in evaluation, but until that time, we recommend language promoting the use of data in evaluation, but not permitting a single test score to be the determining factor in evaluation ratings,” read the organization’s testimony.

There is a dollar cost to the new system as well, as the bill’s summary made clear.

For instance, the new evaluation system that would be deployed in every district and is now being tested in a handful of schools could cost as much as $60 million statewide, the statement read.

The bill would also shift the cost of first-year mentoring of teachers back to the state, although it did not put a price tag on that.

Still, the comments were overwhelmingly positive yesterday, and it seemed at times that the testimony on the bill was as much about thanking the different legislators and stakeholders for their cooperation in the process.

“Compromise did take this bill from one point to another,” Ruiz said in an opening statement. “But compromise did not interfere with us accomplishing what will be today a historic vote on creating policy that will ensure that we have the best professionals in front of every classroom.”