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Christie Presses the Flesh -- and His Case for Tenure Reform

Governor works town hall meeting, while legislators continue to work behind the scenes on two tenure reform bills.

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

Tenure reform, New Jersey style, took a few more twists and turns yesterday, with Gov. Chris Christie pressing the case in public while legislators and staffers continued to work in private on a couple of fronts.

The Christie push came at one of his town hall meetings, this one before more than 600 people in a Haddonfield middle school. He again invoked the example of just 17 teachers facing tenure charges as ineffective in the past decade, out of more than 100,000 in the classroom.

“Do we really believe there are only 17 ineffective teachers in New Jersey?” he asked the receptive audience.

He has called for tenure reform to be decided in the next 19 days before the traditional summer break at the end of June. It is among his top priorities, he said, along with an income or property tax reduction and a settled state budget, the latter required by law.

Meanwhile, discussions continued on two competing bills in the Legislature, the odds-on favorite sponsored by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex). That bill would require teachers to have three consecutive years of positive evaluations to retain tenure, and see the tenure lost after two years of ineffective ratings.

Neither Ruiz nor any of the key players were talking publicly yesterday about the ongoing discussions on the details of the bill. Even identifying what those details are remained off-limits, but significant issues that have been discussed in the past have included seniority rights for teachers, the place of student test scores in teacher evaluations, and how tenure charges would be decided and potentially appealed.

But Ruiz’s bill suddenly appeared on the agenda for Monday’s Senate budget committee meeting. Ruiz chairs the Senate education committee, and the bill was expected to be back before her committee.

Meanwhile, state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex) is proceeding with a hearing on a separate bill on Thursday before the Assembly education committee, which he chairs.

That bill has been publicly backed by the New Jersey Education Association, the powerful teachers union, although its leaders have been in discussions with Ruiz over the past several months as well.

Diegnan’s bill mirrors Ruiz’s in setting three years of positive evaluations for tenure, but is less specific as to what happens to teachers after poor evaluations. It would only demand tenure charges be filed after three years, not actually revocation of tenure.

Diegnan’s bill also lays out a process of binding arbitration for contested cases, not the administrative court specified in Ruiz’s bill. He also makes no reference to easing seniority rights for teachers, which protects more experienced teachers in the face of layoffs, a key component of Ruiz’s bill.

All this has left some lobbyists strategizing as to whether to attach themselves to one bill or both.

“What we want at the end of the day is to get to a place where there isn’t tenure in the traditional sense and we have renewable contracts for teachers based on their evaluations,” said Michael Vrancik, chief lobbyist for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

“Either way, it is moving in that direction, although more slowly than we would like,” he said.

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