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Merit Pay Coming for NJ Teachers?

Education Commissioner Bret Schundler gives early look at how New Jersey aims to win federal education grants.

New Jersey’s education commissioner said yesterday that the Christie administration will propose legislation that would use student achievement as the “yardstick” in how teachers and administrators are evaluated.

But what that actually would mean in the classroom and in educators’ pay is far less clear.

Education Commissioner Bret Schundler made the comments after speaking before a Princeton University conference of school-choice advocates, giving an early look at his department’s plans for applying for the next round of funding through the federal Race to the Top program.

Further details would come later in the week, he said, and districts would be invited to hear the full proposal at a Trenton conference on Monday.

The state stands to gain as much as $400 million in federal grants if it wins the competitive grant, which would require a host of reforms around urban schools, charter schools and teacher accountability.

Only two states -- Delaware and Tennessee -- won the grants in the first round. New Jersey did not finish among the finalists, and Schundler said today that this time, proposed legislation would seek to emulate the other two states’ successes around teacher evaluations.

"Delaware and Tennessee didn’t just say they were thinking about this," Schundler said. "Delaware passed the law that said student learning will be the measure by which we evaluate teacher performance."

Under former Gov. Jon Corzine, New Jersey’s application last winter also included using student achievement -- including but not limited to standardized test scores -- in evaluating teachers. But it did not include legislation.

Still, Schundler did not define how such evaluations would work, nor the role of potential "merit pay" bonuses for teachers, a controversial topic, especially with teachers unions.

But he did say later that merit pay would be included in the plan, and much will rest in the details of the bill and regulations and guidelines that would follow.

"In terms of the particulars of the evaluation system, those things you can articulate through regulation and through separate legislation," he said.

The next application and the possibility of hundreds of millions in additional federal aid comes at a critical time for the state, as public schools face steep cutbacks in state aid under Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed fiscal 2011 budget.

Christie’s budget calls for more than $1 billion in aid reductions, amounting to about 5 percent of each district’s overall budget.

New Jersey’s bid in the first round was largely seen as failing due to the opposition of the New Jersey Education Association, which raised objections about merit pay and other contentious provisions.

But through a lengthy review process that saw reviewers’ grades for New Jersey range from the equivalent of an A to that of a D, a host of factors were included.

Schundler said he did not believe a lack of support from the NJEA or other unions would cripple the application this time.

Citing recent comments from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Schundler said: "Reform will be scored above union buy-in -- if you hit the ball out of the park with reforms that will be more important than union buy-in."

And he was confident the package to be proposed would do so.

If we do this, it will make us an extremely competitive grant submission," he said. "If we pass the framework we describe, I believe we will win."

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