N.J. Senate President Sweeney will not move forward on two of Christie's education proposals

July 9, 2011

TRENTON — Senate President Stephen Sweeney dealt a setback for Gov. Chris Christie’s plans to shake up New Jersey’s public education system Friday, saying he will not move forward on two of the governor’s major proposals.

"Seniority I’m not doing," Sweeney (D-Gloucester) told The Star-Ledger’s editorial board. "I’m not going to do merit pay."

Sweeney’s comments mean the scope of one of Christie’s biggest policy initiatives could be significantly curtailed, since they need to get through the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

Christie wants to pay teachers based on performance, and end the job security practice known as "last in, first out," which protects more experienced teachers during layoffs. Sweeney, who decides which bills are voted on, said those proposals are dead on arrival in his chamber.

Sweeney said he would advance Christie’s other major proposals, but with reservations. He said an overhaul of the state’s teacher tenure system "has to happen," but he’s still waiting to see an effective method to measure teacher performance. He said he may call a vote on a school vouchers bill known as the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which he personally opposes.

Sweeney also won’t call a vote on a bill to require local voters to approve charter schools, which Christie opposes, because it would "absolutely shut down charter schools."

Fixing the 200 failing public schools that serve some 100,000 students is a top priority for Christie, who said in his State of the State address that changing the system is "perhaps the biggest thing of all for the future of our state."

Sweeney’s remarks come just weeks after Sweeney, the governor and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) shepherded through landmark legislation to overhaul pension and health benefits for public workers. But Sweeney’s once-chummy relationship with Christie suffered a breakdown after Christie slashed programs important to Democrats in the state budget.

Sweeney, however, said he would still work with the Republican governor, no matter how frayed their relationship.

"I don’t have much of a choice but to deal with him because I have to," Sweeney said. "I can’t shut the government down or shut down discussions on policy or programs that are important because my feelings got hurt or I hurt his feelings."

Christie formally unveiled seven education bills in April, including proposals to overhaul teacher tenure, offer bonuses to the best teachers, and strip teachers of seniority rights during layoffs. The legislature has taken no action on them.

Other proposals would promote "mutual consent," an agreement among principals and teachers on school assignments; place a 30-day deadline on tenure revocation decisions; and allow districts to opt out of the civil service system.

Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said the governor’s proposals are needed. "We can no longer afford to simply close our eyes and wish away the problems in our education system, hoping the system will fix itself," he said.

Paul Tractenberg, a law professor at Rutgers-Newark and founder of the Education Law Center, which advocates for poor students, said Sweeney is using his power to ensure that some of the governor’s education proposals "don’t see the light of day."

"The Senate president has been battered back and forth and took a lot of heat for cooperating on health benefits reform," Tractenberg said. "Now he’s planting his feet back on the ground over proposals that are misguided and shouldn’t have been on the table to begin with."