Christie Hails Tenure Bill as Victory

August 7, 2012

MIDDLESEX, N.J.—After signing a bill to overhaul teacher tenure rules Monday, Gov. Chris Christie said the changes represented one of his signature political achievements, ranking only behind a successful effort to limit government employees' pension and benefit costs.

"It's right behind pension and benefit reform just because the level of skepticism that we would get anything done," Mr. Christie said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal following a news conference at a middle school here. "There had been such inertia on this topic. I always enjoy defying expectations."

The new law doesn't go as far as tenure bills passed in other states in the past year. But it marks a significant shift in the nation's oldest teacher job-security law, requiring all teachers to undergo annual performance reviews and making it easier to fire poorly performing educators. 

Education policy observers said the law signed Monday was most significant for where it occurred: in a blue, East Coast state with a strong organized labor movement and a Legislature controlled by Democrats. 

"This bill is monumental," said Derrell Bradford, executive director for Better Education for Kids, a New Jersey-based education policy group that lobbied for and helped craft the teacher tenure bill. "In 2009, if you told me we'd have tenure reform, I would have looked at you like you had two heads."

The final legislation didn't include a measure Mr. Christie has pushed hard for: the scrapping of the "last-in/first-out" rules that ensure the most senior teachers are the last to be laid off. At least five states have ended last-in/first-out in the past three years, and Mr. Christie said he would continue to push the issue.

Monday's bill signing was a clear political victory for Mr. Christie, a Republican who has attracted national attention for his bluntly worded, successful efforts to weaken the power of organized labor and institute long-term changes to government employee's work rules and benefits. His other big achievement on that score was a 2011 law that increased what workers must pay for their public pensions and health-care benefits.

"He will use this to underscore his bipartisan record in the days, weeks and years to come," said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University.

Democrats played an important role in helping Mr. Christie change the state's 103-year-old tenure law, as they did on the benefits bill. Sen. Teresa Ruiz, an Essex County Democrat who was the bill's prime sponsor and a lead negotiator, said she held two weeks of meetings to get the bill passed at the end of June.

"We are transforming policy," said Ms. Ruiz, who helped get the support of the teachers union, the New Jersey Educational Association.

In the interview, Mr. Christie described his role in the two-year effort to change the tenure law. Negotiations heated up in late May, with Mr. Christie getting updates every other day from his education commissioner, Christopher Cerf. There were many moments when Mr. Christie said he considered the bill too "weak."

"There were plenty of times I thought I really wasn't going to sign anything," he said. "But the bill got good enough…it became a bill I wanted to sign."

New Jersey joins a growing number of states, including New York, that will evaluate teachers based in part on their students' test scores. Teachers will be rated each year as effective, partially effective, partially ineffective or ineffective.

Mr. Christie said a provision that helped win his support was a change allowing new teachers to get tenure after four years, instead of the current three. He said he felt strongly that two years of being ranked in the two lowest-performing categories—not just the lowest one—should be enough to revoke tenure.

The evaluation system isn't subject to collective bargaining, as it is in New York.

Mr. Christie said he was pleased about a provision to shift the process for a teacher's dismissal from administrative courts to state arbitrators. The current system for dismissal can take several years and cost upward of $100,000, and fewer than 20 teachers have lost their tenure for charges of being inefficient in the last decade, according to the state Department of Education. The new arbitration system will be capped at a cost of $7,500 and 105 days from when the charges against a teacher are levied.

The law takes effect during the 2012 school year but its implementation will be gradual. The state is piloting the model for evaluating teachers in certain districts, and it will take effect statewide in the 2013 school year. Districts will be able to use the state's model or develop their own for state approval.

Once the pilot program is finished, the administration is looking for student testing to account for 33% to 45% of a teacher's assessment, a ratio Mr. Christie said he can live with. "In my perfect world I'd want it to be 50%," he said, adding that "I'm content with it." The union doesn't want specific percentages written into regulations.

Mr. Christie said he expected to see districts begin to weed out underperforming teachers by 2014.

"It will take a little while, but we want to do it well, and we want to do it carefully," he said.

Mr. Christie said his next step on education would be to move forward on a bill to provide scholarships to children in underperforming districts and to impose merit pay for teachers.