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Teacher Tenure Changes Now in Christie’s Court

Union calls on governor to sign measure as reforms win unanimous support in both houses.

As New Jersey’s tenure reform bill continues to win broad support, maybe the only debate left is who gets credit for it.

The Assembly yesterday approved the measure 79-0, following up with last week’s 39-0 vote in the Senate. The Assembly made a few changes, mostly small, but there was virtually no discussion on the floor before the unanimous vote.

A few minutes later, the Senate gave the amendments their final vote of support, again unanimous. All that stands in the way now is Gov. Chris Christie’s expected signature.

The bill for the first time ties tenure protections directly to teacher evaluations, with teachers earning the protections with consistently positive ratings and potentially losing it with two consecutive negative ones.

But with the governor and his education commissioner so far silent on the bill, others quickly jumped in to fill the void. Most prominent was the New Jersey Education Association, which put out a press release within minutes of the Assembly’s vote, celebrating the passage and saying some of the reforms came from the union more than a year ago.

“This bipartisan solution shows that when policymakers listen to educators, we can accomplish important things together,” said NJEA President Barbara Keshishian in a statement.

The union can take some credit for at least influencing some key pieces of the bill, including what’s not in it. Most notable is the absence of any language that would change seniority rights for its members in the case of layoffs, something that Christie has championed since taking office.

The union was also one of the first to press for state arbitrators to hear contested tenure cases, something that did end up in the bill, along with specific time limits. Tenure cases are now heard by administrative law judges, adding to the cost and time required.

“Before anyone else was talking about it, NJEA proposed putting all dismissal appeals before highly qualified arbitrators,” said Vincent Giordano, the NJEA’s executive director.

Meanwhile, even the Assembly bill has gotten some new names at the top, with the original sponsors stepping back and new ones stepping forward.

Now named as prime sponsor is state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), the education chairman who had opposed any form of renewable tenure a year ago but slowly moved toward compromise in the last few weeks. The original sponsor, state Assemblyman Robert Coutinho (D-Essex) was named as a co-sponsor.

“This is meaningful tenure reform that does what’s best for our children while balancing the protection of due process for our principals and teachers” Diegnan said.

On the Senate side, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) remained the lead sponsor on a bill that she spent the better part of two years crafting. As the Assembly voted, she was in the chamber but did not speak. She accepted quiet congratulations and hugs from colleagues afterward.

“I want to thank all of the stakeholders who participated in this process to ensure that we had the best possible policy for the state of New Jersey,” Ruiz said in a statement. “This bill represents collaboration, but more than that it represents extraordinary progress.”

Still, there were changes in the last few days that spoke to the minutia of this bill that made it so vexing.

For instance, at the pressing of Diegnan and others, the final bill has new language about the role of test scores in evaluating teachers. Now it reads that test scores “shall not be the predominant factor in the overall evaluation of a teacher,” slightly different than Ruiz’s original language that they would only be a “partial” factor.

It’s only a word, but it speaks to the heart of the debate that has roiled tenure reform in much of the country, not just New Jersey. Still, Ruiz said yesterday that she had no problem with the change, saying she never intended that test scores be a major factor in evaluations. “This just codified my intentions all along,” she said.

Christie is expected to sign the bill. The general consensus is he would have not allowed his party’s entire representation in both Senate and Assembly to back a bill that he would turn around and veto, even conditionally veto.

And never predicted a year ago, there is one new party joining the call for Christie to make it happen.

“It’s not a perfect bill,” said Keshishian, the NJEA president, in her statement. “But the bill passed by the Legislature today is the right direction for New Jersey right now, and we call on Gov. Christie to sign this important legislation immediately.”

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