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Tenure, Charters, Vouchers: Lame Duck Session's Big Three

The election's over, the legislature's back in session, and education reform is at the top of the docket.

Now that New Jersey's midterm election is over, with little changed in the legislature, it's back to business in the Statehouse -- and that means education reform.

Gov. Chris Christie yesterday put out his now-familiar call for the Democratic-controlled legislature to act on what he said are the state's priorities, starting with his package of proposals on teacher tenure, charter schools, and school vouchers.

The Democratic leadership, for its part, put out its schedule for the next two months, starting next Monday.

And for all of Christie's prodding, which is expected to continue today with an education event in Secaucus, the legislature is actually pretty far along on several of the governor' core proposals.

True, they contain significant Democrat-induced elements, but the chances of passage for at least some of them are pretty strong.

Teacher Tenure

Christie's bill to revamp teacher tenure, sponsored by state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), may have helped start the conversation, but it is the Democrats' distinctly different bills in both the Senate and the Assembly that have the best chance of becoming law.

But even that is hardly guaranteed.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairman of the education committee, is shepherding the effort in the Senate, and has been at work revising her initial bill for unveiling in the next few weeks.

Its basic premise is that teachers with consecutive years of strong evaluations would be granted tenure, and those with consecutive years of poor ones would see it removed. The details on how many years, how those evaluations are defined, and what happens in between for subpar teachers are still to be worked out, but there is a general sense that the proposal has the support in the Senate, specifically Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester).

The Assembly is trickier, where there is a companion bill from Albert Coutinho (D-Essex), but Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly's education committee, has been more critical and remains a key wild card.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver has said she supports tenure reform, but that can mean many things. And never to be underestimated, the New Jersey Education Association has reengaged in the battle. It has offered its own reform proposal that adds a fourth year before a new teacher is granted tenure and streamlines the process for removing it, but it does not have near the same ties between teacher evaluation and student performance that both Christie and Ruiz have said will be central principles.

Charter Schools

Charter school reform has taken on a life of its own under the Democratic leadership, with a half-dozen measures -- some supported by the governor, some not -- at different stages in the legislative process.

The question now is whether they will all be take up at once -- with a new comprehensive bill possibly being introduced -- or if the legislature will continue chipping away at specific pieces.

Among the most far-reaching bill, and one that has broad bipartisan support -- in principle, if not in specifics -- is legislation that would extend the number of authorizing agencies and organizations able to approve and review new charter schools.

Potentially including colleges and universities and even local school boards, the authorizer bill would significantly expand New Jersey's capacity for and oversight of charter schools, something that even their supporters say has been lacking.

Other bills to strengthen accountability rules on charter schools also appear poised for passage, and one sponsored by Coutinho and state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), which allows the conversion of private and parochial schools into charter schools, has passed and was signed into law last week.

But the most contentious bill of the package may face a rougher ride. It would require local communities to vote on a new charter school before it can be approved. The measure has been roundly rejected by the Christie administration and some of the Democratic leadership, who fear it will effectively stop charter schools from opening anywhere. It is unclear if it has enough support in the Senate to even be put to a vote.

Another controversial bill that hasn't seen much public debate yet, but has resurfaced in the last few weeks, is the proposed Urban Hope Act, which would allow districts to effectively "charter-ize" their lowest-performing schools and bring in private companies to manage them. Christie announced the proposal last summer in Camden, where it appears to have the backing of South Jersey political leader George Norcross and would be another tool in his very public quest to revamp Camden schools.

School vouchers

The controversies over tenure and charters are nothing compared with those over Christie’s push for school vouchers, specifically through the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA).

After more than 20 years of debate and a slew of different versions, the proposal sponsored by state Sens. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) and Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union) would provide a corporate tax credit to fund up to $12,000 in scholarships for low-income students in specific low-performing districts to attend schools of their choice, public or private.

And for all the ups and downs to its prospects over the years, it has been as close as ever to passage in the last year, with committees signing off in both the Senate and the Assembly. But it has yet to make the final hurdle of being posted for final vote, hung up on the politics and the details.

The politics hinge largely on the support of Sweeney and Oliver. Sweeney’s allegiance to Norcross, a strong OSA backer, has helped its prospects. But Oliver has said she would only post it if it included certain assurances, such as limits on the number of districts and students affected. Once more than 30 districts were included; the latest version has trimmed that down to just a half-dozen or so.

A key player in the process is likely to be Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Camden), named as the new majority leader under Oliver. As the Assembly’s budget committee chairman, Greenwald said he would support a “true pilot” that would include only a handful of districts and not provide scholarships to existing private school students, among other conditions.

Last week, Christie said he would not rule out a trimmed-down version of the program, saying he recognized that compromise may be required for the landmark bill to pass. The NJEA is not in the mood to compromise on this issue, and if the bill is ever posted, it is sure to lead to furious debate in the weeks or months ahead.

Editor's note: The initial version of this story incorrectly identified state Assemblyman Lou Greenwald's title. He will be the Assembly's majority leader, not deputy speaker.

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