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Competing Teacher Tenure Bills Move Forward

Now comes the tough part as lawmakers attempt to bridge the differing policies.

Tenure reform in New Jersey saw a lot of action yesterday, on a couple of fronts. The question now is whether any of them will get over the finish line.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairman of the Senate education committee, yesterday released her long-awaited revisions to her tenure bill, taking bold and surprising strides to bring a consensus between disparate factions, Republican and Democrat alike.

The biggest was a decision to give up -- at least for now -- her bid to phase out seniority rights for teachers, or what is termed the “last in, first out” (LIFO) rule in layoffs.

Credit: Amanda Brown
Sen. Teresa Ruiz

“The whole process was I would propose a concept, and conversations would create compromise, and that is precisely what has occurred,” Ruiz said yesterday in releasing the language in the late afternoon.

“It still is a big issue, but it’s a question of whether we can we get a bill that has significant policy change, one that gets posted, one that gets support, and one that gets considered for passage into law,” she said. “Or do I sit and do nothing at all?”

Meanwhile, a separate, more moderate bill sponsored by Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), the Assembly’s education chairman, also progressed through his committee yesterday, albeit with only Democratic support.

This one never would have ended seniority rights in the first place, but it does include some of Ruiz’s provisions for directly linking tenure to annual evaluations of teacher performance. And notably, it had the public backing of the New Jersey Education Association, the powerful teachers union, in a step almost unthinkable a couple of years ago.

Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr.

“All of us realize that every teacher who performs before a classroom does not necessarily do the best job they can, and this bill puts in place a system where those individuals would no longer be in front of the classroom,” Diegnan said.

Both are up against the clock, with each sponsor saying they hope to reach agreement -- including with each other -- before the end of the month and the Legislature’s summer break. Gov. Chris Christie has already said tenure reform is one of his top priorities for the rest of the month, along with a tax cut and a state budget.

“I don’t think we differ that much,” said Diegnan after his hearing of his and Ruiz’s bill.

But even for all the talk of progress and consensus, significant gaps remains between the bills. The huge question looms to whether Christie will sign a bill that is a far cry from what he first proposed more than a year ago, one that not only ended LIFO but had explicit connections between tenure and student achievement, including state test scores.

Both bills make reference to student performance as being one of the factors in evaluations, but not as explicitly as Christie’s trumpeted. Diegnan’s bill said it could not be a final determining factor.

Christie’s office was silent on the matter yesterday, and acting Commissioner Chris Cerf also would not comment. The commissioner’s office and even Cerf himself were involved in the talks with Ruiz, but yesterday a spokeswoman said the office would not speak on pending legislation.

The next step is a Senate budget committee on Monday, where Ruiz said she will formally introduce her new bill and hope to see passage toward a full Senate vote.

The budget committee chairman, state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), yesterday said it was “good to go” but there were also a couple of issues to resolve. He did not detail those issues, but said one involved addressing concerns in Newark.

That could mean a few things, but a big issue faced in that district is the expanding pool of teachers who are being squeezed out by the consolidation and closing of schools and what to do with them.

Without an end to seniority, they cannot be let go before less experienced teachers. And even with a new system of tying tenure to teacher evaluations, under both Ruiz and Diegnan’s bills, they would need at least two years of poor evaluations before they would lose their tenure. Newark union leaders said a vast majority of the teachers in the excess pool have had satisfactory evaluations.

Nonetheless, Newark superintendent Cami Anderson said in a presentation to the State Board of Education this week that passage of Ruiz’s bill in its previous version was critical to her changes in the district. Her communications director yesterday declined any further comment about the new bill.

Ruiz, a Newark resident, acknowledged her bill could slow down the trimming of teachers in her hometown district. “But this is about creating a policy for the entire state of New Jersey,” she said.

That is just one issue to resolve, however. As both Ruiz and Diegnan’s bills advanced yesterday, they also highlighted a host of other differences as well.

One significant point of agreement is a streamlined process for hearing tenure charges, something that all parties have said is critical to ease the current difficulty of removing weak teachers.

Under both bills, that process would now go to state arbitrators and would have time limits for the cases to be resolved. Still, while Diegnan’s bill would use arbitrators with the state’s Public Employment Relations Commission, Ruiz’s would set up a whole new bank of arbitrators selected by the various stakeholders, albeit with the governor’s administration setting the guidelines.

In addition, Diegnan would only call for teachers to be brought up on tenure charges after two years of evaluations as “ineffective,” the very lowest of four tiers. Ruiz’s bill would apply the rule to two straight years of ratings as “ineffective” or “partially effective,” the bottom two tiers.

And there was even something as fundamental as the effective date of the law, with Ruiz calling for it to be effective in 2013-14, while Diegnan would wait until 2014-15, with the possibility of extending it a year after that.

Ruiz said she did not want to directly compare her bill with Diegnan’s, but said that she hoped any differences could be bridged in the next two weeks or an opportunity might be lost to make what she called “huge changes in public policy.”

Ruiz and her staff have been working “16 hour days” to negotiate this deal, she said, and her Statehouse office has been booked with meetings for much of the last week.

“We need one policy change,” she said. “We can’t have two different versions.”

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