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Christie and NJEA: Three Topics on the Table

Tenure, merit pay, and seniority are the three main issues under negotiation in last-minute Race to the Top talks.

Four months ago, the New Jersey Education Association opposed New Jersey’s bid for federal Race to the Top funds, saying its proposals to expand student testing and change how teachers are judged and paid were anathema to its members.

Now down to the wire on New Jersey’s next application, NJEA leaders are sitting at the table with the Christie administration, meeting and exchanging phone calls with top state officials to hash out details in the application that they might be able to live with. The administration is equally anxious to have the NJEA come on board, since teacher buy-in is a critical component to the federal government's scoring system.

Credit: NJ Spotlight
Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, center, meeting with school leaders on Tuesday to sell them on Race to the Top application.

The deadline for the application is next Tuesday, and negotiations continued through the day yesterday. So far, 400 districts have signed in support the application. Few local unions have signed on, however, as they await word from the NJEA leadership.

At stake is potentially $400 million for the state, and also how New Jersey schools evaluate and pay their teachers.

According to those privy to the talks, three issues are central:

Teacher tenure

Teacher tenure -- the lifetime job protections that teachers receive after three years on the job—may be the hottest topic of all with the public, but it's actually one where the two sides appear to be close to agreement.

State Education Commissioner Bret Schundler says he initially wanted a provision that teachers can see their tenure revoked after three years of unsatisfactory job evaluations.

The NJEA says current law allows for districts to seek tenure charges after two years of poor performance, rather than waiting three years. However, such charges are rarely pursued. The NJEA has agreed that the law requires a strong system for evaluating teachers and said it is is willing to work with the commissioner to strengthen and better define that system.

Credit: NJ Spotlight
The New Jersey Education Association headquarters in Trenton, a block from the Statehouse.

“It is very important that principals and supervisors be well-trained in the process, so they can be offering formative feedback to teachers,” said Dawn Hiltner, a NJEA spokeswoman.

Schundler said on Tuesday that he would be willing to bend on this, given the NJEA’s support on other measures.

“We will lose some points by moving away from reforms the federal government wants, but we’ll gain points with teacher buy-in,” he said.

Hiltner agreed last night: “I think we have made significant progress on that.”

Merit pay

Schundler wants a system where teachers and schools as a whole would receive bonuses in pay for significant growth in student achievement, as gauged in part by test scores but also other measures.

The NJEA has argued against such bonuses, or merit pay, for teachers as potentially unfair and divisive. It has requested in a series of meetings with Schundler and other senior staff for only school-wide bonuses.

On Tuesday, Schundler said he would compromise and provide half of the funds for school-wide bonuses and the other half toward a pilot system that would allow selected districts to try bonuses for individual teachers or groups of teachers.

“NJEA seemed willing to accept that approach, but we are still waiting approval,” Schundler said.

Late yesterday, Hiltner said the two sides are making progress, but said there were still details to work out. For one, she said a school’s teachers must be given final say as to whether the money goes school-wide or to individuals.

“Teachers often will feel that the quality of the school as a whole and the school climate is more important than a few extra dollars to themselves,” she said.

Teacher retention

Maybe the toughest of the three, since it gets to one of the sacred tenets of organized labor: seniority.

Schundler seeks in the Race to the Top application a system where teachers would be rated by “effectiveness” when considered for dismissal, which is a real possibility these days with the state’s dire financial condition and thousands of layoffs likely.

The teachers union is steadfast in demanding that such dismissals be determined by seniority, with the least experienced the first to go.

Now the two sides are talking about a tiered system in which teacher seniority would count within set categories of teacher effectiveness, based on his or her evaluations. The categories would range from “ineffective” to “highly effective.” There would also be a new standing for “master teachers.”

But the NJEA appears least likely to budge on this one.

“All these categories are difficult for everyone,” Hiltner said. “Seniority is in there for a reason. It helps principals make decisions and teachers who have dedicated their whole lives to teaching and are doing a good job.”

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