Tenure Reform Wins Backing of Teachers

June 19, 2012

TRENTON — After 18 months of negotiation, a proposed law that would end teacher tenure as a largely automatic and careerlong right cleared an important hurdle with the blessing of the state’s teachers unions and bipartisan political support.

The bill represents a dramatic shift in a century-old practice by requiring teachers to be competent to receive and keep the job-protection rights. Still, it fell short of the goals set by Gov. Chris Christie, nor does it approach the wholesale reforms passed by some other states, such as Louisiana or Indiana.

“I vote for great teachers, I vote for great professionalism, and I vote that every child has the opportunity for greatness,” state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, said as her bill sailed through the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

While the plan makes significant changes in granting and revoking tenure, seniority would still be the prime job-protection factor in the event of layoffs, keeping the “last in, first out” system.

Christie, a Republican who had dubbed 2011 as the “Year of Education Reform,” and acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf have long called for a system whereby only the best teachers would be retained during job cuts.

But it was that change that helped bring support from the New Jersey Education Association, American Federation of Teachers and other groups that had been resisting the tenure reform drive.

“We are pleased to support this legislation,” NJEA President Barbara Keshishian, who has frequently battled with Christie, told the Senate committee.

Keshishian said she was satisfied that the bill, if enacted, would keep teachers from being fired “on a whim as a result of a personality conflict with an administrator, or for political or other inappropriate reasons.”

But rank-and-file teachers remain skeptical of the reform measure, said Donna M. Chiera, the New Jersey head of the AFT, in an interview.

That’s because the complex teacher evaluation process remains, so far, as a pilot program in about a dozen school districts. Meanwhile, the state has adopted new curriculum standards and is developing new tests on which teachers will be graded.

“Teachers are not against (tenure reform). They’re fearful of it,” Chiera said. But, she added, the Ruiz bill is “fair for adults and good for kids.”

Ruiz’s bill must now be reconciled with an Assembly bill, offered by Assemblyman Patrick J. Diegnan Jr., D-Middlesex, which has less support and presents a lower bar for teachers to get and keep tenure. Diegnan’s bill also gives teachers a greater ability to challenge tenure charges.

The Diegnan bill passed on a party-line vote in the Assembly Education Committee last week. Both chambers would have to vote on a final bill before it is sent to Christie to sign.

Christie’s office issued a statement that praised Ruiz for her efforts but said the governor would await the final bill before he decides whether to support it.

Annual reviews

Both bills would require teachers to pass two annual reviews in the first four years to obtain tenure, but Ruiz’s bill would let a teacher be mentored only in their first year. Currently, teachers are automatically granted tenure after three years.

Both bills set up an arbitration process for teachers who face losing tenure because they failed to meet standards in their annual review, though each bill sets up a different mechanism for picking arbitrators.

Teachers who are stripped of tenure could be fired, or an arbitrator could decide to keep a teacher from progressing on the pay scale.

School principals and assistant principals would also face the potential loss of tenure in both bills.

Debra Bradley of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association complained that the state’s year-end standardized test results would count for too much under the new regimen.

“You could be a fabulous teacher, but that one test could sink you, even when we have kids from low-income families or that didn’t eat breakfast that morning,” she said.

The tenure reform effort was not nearly as sweeping as measures passed in some GOP-dominated states, where, for example, principals and superintendents have been given direct control over personnel decisions.

But one proponent, Kathleen Nugent, New Jersey director of Democrats for Education Reform, said in an interview that gave the Garden State version a better chance of success because teacher would be more open to accepting it.

“The implementation is more important than the legislation,” Nugent said. “If you’re forcing reforms on educators, you won’t have a partnership.”