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Making a Sizable Exception to the Tenure Reform Bill

A critical clause in the proposed bill could mean tenure reform will not be applied retroactively

Credit: Amanda Brown
Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex)

A few critical words at the top of page 14 of the proposed tenure reform bill caused quite a stir yesterday at a Senate hearing on the measure.

The new rules -- which redefine how New Jersey teachers earn and keep tenure -- will not apply to "those who acquired tenure prior to the effective date" of the bill.

In other words, the bill put forward by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the bill that has been given the best chance yet of overhauling New Jersey’s century-old tenure system, will be grandfathered in.

And what of those reforms? Ruiz has reworked how new teachers would be granted and denied tenure and effectively ended the last-hired, first-fired policy. Beginning in 2014, the proposed bill mandates that teachers and administrators would be dismissed based first and foremost on school needs and then according to effectiveness -- rather than the seniority that now determines layoffs.

But it was the grandfather clause that quickly became the focus of attention yesterday.

“It was a huge issue to consider, and we just wanted something in place,” Ruiz explained after the four-hour hearing before the Senate education committee, which she chairs.

But for several educators and others, the exception would gut the bill by stopping it from applying its most stringent consequences to the vast majority of teachers.

The superintendent of Perth Amboy schools, Janine Caffrey, testified that it was critical that schools have the opportunity to move on existing teachers who do not make the grade.

“Don’t tell me we’re not in a hurry and will grandfather people who have been here a while,” Caffrey said.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, making a rare appearance at a Statehouse hearing, said it was a flaw in a bill he said was otherwise critical to the success of his city’s school district.

“It seems to me monumentally absurd to have a bill that is debated and ultimately agreed upon,” Booker said, “and then somehow forgives and forgets all the teachers who are there and only applies to new teachers in the profession.”

He said it will especially affect Newark, which is shrinking in enrollment and closing schools. “The urgency for change does not just apply to new teachers,” he said.

This is about more than a grandfather clause, however: New Jersey teachers' unions are strongly opposed to the state doing away with seniority -- for any teachers. It was the issue that derailed the partnership between the Christie administration and the unions in one of New Jersey’s applications for federal Race to the Top money, and it continues to be a dividing line in the current debate.

Yesterday, Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the chief lobbyist for the New Jersey Education Association, said the bill’s treatment of seniority remains an obstacle to agreement. She maintained it gives districts an excuse to get rid of older, more expensive teachers.

If a good evaluation system is in place, she said, ineffective teachers would already be moved out of the schools if they don’t improve. “If a teacher is ineffective, you shouldn’t be waiting for layoffs to move them out,” she said.

But if all the teachers are on the same standing, Schnitzer said, then seniority is “the only fair way” to determine who goes first. “Otherwise, it’s not just about cost savings, but about politics, personality, you name it,” she said.

Nonetheless, the NJEA lobbyist said after the hearing that she was not particularly happy with the grandfather clause, either.

“I think it was intended as a compromise, recognizing this is changing the culture and trying to ease its way in,” Schnitzer said last night. “But it’s almost unworkable, where some employees work under one set of rules, and others under another.”

And the discussion has Ruiz thinking, too. The state senator said after the hearing that she continues to believe some modification of the seniority rule is critical, but recognizes the cutoff point may need further discussion. Yesterday’s hearing did not include any vote on the bill.

“It’s clear that we should be looking at how we keep the best professionals in the classroom and not just one factor,” Ruiz said of seniority.

As for the grandfather clause, Ruiz said, “I heard from a lot of people urging that [the law] apply retroactively. It is something I will take strongly under consideration.”

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