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Teacher Tenure Changes Pass Unanimously in NJ Senate

Key vote helps pave back-room compromise with Assembly to merge into single bill.

Credit: NJ Senate Democrats
Sen. Teresa Ruiz

Many of the last hurdles were removed yesterday from what now seems like all-but-certain passage of a tenure reform law for New Jersey that would make it harder for teachers to gain tenure and easier to lose it.

The Senate passed the bill sponsored by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) with a remarkable 39-0 vote, the Republicans’ unanimous support virtually assuring that Gov. Chris Christie will support it as well.

There remains a different Assembly version, but Ruiz met yesterday for a half-hour with state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), the Assembly’s education chairman and sponsor of that bill, to work out differences.

In the end, the two agreed to a single bill, they said, with much of Ruiz’s version prevailing in the Assembly bill. The changes from her bill were mostly in some of the more technical details of implementation.

Diegnan said he would move a new bill in the Assembly as soon as today, with a full Assembly vote on Monday. The Senate would then have one more vote on a final bill.

Tenure reform was just one vote in what was a busy day for both houses yesterday, as legislators continued to finalize a state budget proposal and take up other pending matters before their summer break. On the education front, the Democrats’ budget took a few swipes at the Christie budget plan, although they left largely intact his totals for school aid next year.

The main education headline, though, was the tenure vote, one that was by no means assured just a few weeks ago. Ruiz yesterday called it a “historic day” for the state.

“We have an opportunity to vote yes for teachers, yes for greatness, and most importantly, yes for the children,” she said in introducing her bill on the Senate floor.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) called it “probably one of the most significant pieces of legislation that I have been involved with in my 10 years here.”

Even the Republicans were praising the agreement, although they cited it more as a first move than an end in itself.

After months of talks and compromising, in the end Ruiz’s bill did not include some of the key provisions being pressed by Christie for the last two years, including the end of seniority rights for teachers in the case of layoffs.

“It is a step in the right direction, let’s be clear a much smaller step than many would have preferred,” said state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, (R-Monmouth), who had initially sponsored a bill reflecting Christie’s preferences.

Christie’s press office was not commenting last night on the Senate bill, but his administration, including acting education commissioner Chris Cerf, had been involved in the talks with Ruiz.

The negotiations with Diegnan proved less climactic than expected. There had been significant similarities between the bills already, both bills calling for a required four years to receive tenure, instead of the current three, and for due process before state arbitrators for teachers brought up on tenure charges.

But where Diegnan initially proposed that teachers would only lose tenure after two years of “ineffective” ratings, the lowest of four tiers of evaluations, he agreed to Ruiz’s version that it be two years of either “ineffective” or “partially effective,” the bottom two tiers. A teacher could get an extra year if showing improvement in that time.

Diegnan also agreed to Ruiz’s conditions for teachers bringing a challenge to tenure charges, which were more limiting than his. But he did gain concessions in extending the timeline for the arbitration process and requiring evaluations of teachers only be conducted by supervisors in the district, not outside. Diegnan said he also won some language that student test scores alone would not be a determinant factor in a teacher’s evaluation, but one of several.

“I’ve said that for a long time, I don’t think they should be the final determination,” Diegnan said.

The state budget developments around education were quieter, relatively small pieces in a voluminous $31.7 billion budget proposal from the Democrats but reflective of the majority’s continued unease with some of Christie’s other moves involving public schools.

For instance, the Democratic budget removed $1.7 million proposed by Christie for the establishment of seven Regional Achievement Centers across the state, the centerpieces of the administration’s school turnaround efforts.

Extensive work has already gone into the RACs, with interviews and even some hires taking place and training underway. But state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), chairman of the Senate’s budget committee, said Democrats did not believe the centers were ready and it proved available money to cut.

“They are not going to be prepared to have those up and running, so we just feel it was extra money that was not needed in the budget,” he said.

And while the Democrats did not make changes to the bottom line of what districts will receive in aid from the state next year, they did reject the administration’s language for how it devised those amounts.

The administration had made some unilateral changes in the state’s funding formula approved in the Abbott v. Burke litigation that advocates said would only hurt poor districts next year and in the long term. By not accepting that language, the Democrats signaled this debate was not over.

“The 2009 school funding formula remains the only school funding formula that has been approved by the Supreme Court,” Sarlo said. “We will give them the opportunity to justify their changes at a later date.”

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