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Christie Scheduled to Sign Historic Tenure Reform Bill Today

John Mooney | August 6, 2012

TEACH-NJ is a landmark legislation, but signing brings questions -- like who will be on hand?

More than a month after the Legislature approved the tenure reform bill without a single dissenting vote, Gov. Chris Christie will sign Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey (TEACH NJ) into law today.

Christie's office announced the scheduled signing late yesterday, after weeks of speculation of when and even if he would sign the sweeping measure. He always indicated he would, but questions mounted as to whether he would be adding any new proposals.

The signing will take place at the Von E. Mauger Middle School in Middesex at 10:50 a.m., following by a press conference. Christie also plans to meet with students beforehand.

But even with the fundamental uncertainty resolved, that doesn’t end all the questions. Here are three:

Who gets invited?

Who attends bill signings is usually just political protocol and not all that important, but there will be a notable presence for the event today: the leadership of the New Jersey Education Association.

Needless to say, Christie and the teachers union have not been the best of pals, with little if any contact between the governor’s office and the leadership located just down West State Street for the better part of two years.

But Vince Giordano, the union’s executive director, said yesterday that the union got a call a couple of days ago asking him and the top officers, including president Barbara Keshishian, to attend the signing.

Giordano said the union was pleased to be included, as it has been deeply involved in the talks that led to the final bill. He said it will be the first bill signing of this governor that the NJEA has been invited to.

“We are happy to be invited, since we played a key role in its passage,” Giordano said. “And we will certainly be there.”

Others sure to be on the list and speaking to the gathered press and others will be the top sponsors, led by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), who is inarguably the bill’s chief architect. State Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex) was also a key player on the Assembly side and could get a few words, as may the eventual sponsor, state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex).

What happens next with seniority?

Practically since he took office, Christie has made it a priority to end the current system of basing teacher layoffs on seniority. It’s known as “last in, first out“ or LIFO, and it’s a rallying cry that Christie often invokes in his education speeches and town hall meetings.

Under the law to be signed today, however, LIFO lives on.

The bill makes plenty of other changes. It now requires that teachers need to work four years to gain tenure rights and to attain consistently positive evaluations to maintain them. If they receive less than positive ratings for two years, tenure charges must be brought against them that could remove them from the classroom.

But after months of discussion and negotiation, Ruiz and other key lawmakers behind the bill decided not to include initial language that would have effectively phased out LIFO. Some say it was a key point that brought the New Jersey Education Association on board, as well as the unanimous Democratic support.

Christie has since said that he wished the bill had gone further to end LIFO, and several Republicans raised the issue in casting their votes for the measure.

Now, here’s Christie’s chance to say what will happen next, if anything. Christie today is sure to mention his concerns again in celebrating what was enacted, and he can even do something about it in at least furthering the cause through executive order or a governor’s task force or something similar. Either way, while maybe safe for now, it is surely not the end of the debate or the attempts to change it.

What’s next on the law itself?

Here comes the hard part. The bill that took close to two years to get drafted and enacted may take just as long to see all the corresponding regulations and procedures in place and operating.

There is work to do. The bill is predicated on a couple of central pieces: a teacher evaluation system that is working statewide and a state data system that can tie student achievement to individual teachers.

Neither is ready yet. The teacher evaluation system is now in a pilot phase, with 11 districts training staff and putting the first pieces in place last year and another 20 districts joining this coming year.

The plan is to have the system ready statewide by 2013 - 2014, but there is no certainty of that given some of the challenges the pilot has encountered. State officials have conceded many questions remain unanswered, from the readiness of staff to the capacity of supervisors to complete the work.

A key piece is also how to link student achievement with teacher performance. That was always meant to be a central tenet of the system, and is called for within the law itself.

But while Christie and others in his administration have pressed that student learning make up as much as 50 percent of a teacher’s rating, the law keeps it vague and even downplayed it a bit in the final language. One of the challenges is that a majority of teachers don’t even have standardized assessments for their students, another challenge showing itself in the pilot.

And for those that are tested, the state’s data system is only now starting to link student scores to individual teachers through actual class rosters. Next will be testing of the state’s methodology and its use of a system called “student growth percentiles” that measures how much children have progressed in a given year against their peers. The system is being rolled out to districts now to help evaluate schools, but it will see considerably more scrutiny once the numbers get attached to individual teachers.

Even with all these questions, that’s not to say today’s signing is anything but a big milestone.

The fact that a major piece of legislation won support of the entire Senate and Assembly, Democrat and Republican alike, is a significant feat. Christie’s signature will only cement the achievement, with or without everything he wanted in the bill.

And to have the NJEA on hand at the governor’s invitation, well, that’s cause for headlines alone.

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