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Compromise, Caffeine, and Trade-Offs: Behind NJ's New Tenure Reform Bill

Weeks of marathon meetings bring Sen. Ruiz, key players, and Christie to celebratory signing.

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

With the signing yesterday of New Jersey’s new teacher tenure law, there was the expected fanfare about the stakeholders and bipartisan efforts that went into crafting the final bill.

Less attention was given to the two weeks of marathon meetings in early June that finally turned the legislation, the break coming when the governor relented on an issue that was once almost non-negotiable.

A half-dozen key players led by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the main crafter of the bill, met for hours at a time in a handful of locations to work out the details, according to several of those who attended.

Among those in the rooms were state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, the top leadership for the New Jersey Education Association, and state Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex), the driving force in the Assembly.

Just a week before the bill came to final vote in the Senate, Ruiz and Cerf even squeezed in a closed-door meeting at the Liberty Science Center after a special State Board of Education session held at the Jersey City museum.

"We lived on coffee dispensed from a vending machine," Ruiz said yesterday of that meeting.

Ultimately, it was Gov. Chris Christie stepping back -- at least for now -- on an issue that was once a no-trespass line: his insistence on ending seniority rights for teachers in the case of layoffs.

“That was very near the end of the process, not a single moment, but suddenly it didn’t appear so much in the conversations any more,” said Vincent Giordano, the executive director of the New Jersey Education Association and one of the regulars at the table.

“When that issue started slowly fading away, without question, that helped smooth out other hurdles in the road,” he said. “That’s what bargaining is all about.”

Indeed, Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of NJ (TEACH-NJ) ended up the product of lots of bargaining, a big theme yesterday as Christie and virtually all of the other players gathered for the signing in the library of a Middlesex Township middle school.

Alongside Christie and Ruiz at the lectern were Cerf, state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), representing the Democratic leadership, and state Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Essex) for the Republicans.

But that was just the start. In the audience was the leadership of several major school associations, including Giordano and a strong showing of other officers and executives of the NJEA. Also invited were the state’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, and the Garden State Coalition of Schools, the group representing mostly suburban districts.

Also present were the special-interest groups that have grown to prominence around this issue, including the New Jersey leaders of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and Better Education for Kids (B4K), two pro-reform organizations that had been integral in the tenure bill’s push and both publicly thanked by Christie.

In one notable seating arrangement, the outspoken executive director of the B4K, Derrell Bradford, even sat between the presidents of the NJEA and the state AFT.

Relations among the various groups and individuals have not always been warm -- though they have been heated at times -- especially between Christie and the NJEA, with each hurling insults for the past two years over a range of issues.

When it came to the tenure bill and all it represented, the hot spot was often seniority. This issue led to one of the first breaches back in 2010, when Christie rejected a compromise over seniority that had been struck by the NJEA and his former commissioner, Bret Schundler, in the first application for federal Race to the Top money.

Schundler ultimately was fired by Christie over another transgression in the doomed federal application, and Christie yesterday said the seniority issue was well down the list of disagreements he had with Schundler.

Nonetheless, Christie said it was something he ultimately compromised on to help the tenure bill proceed. He, too, said it was about trade-offs, and the bill’s direct link between a teacher’s tenure rights and positive evaluations was worth the give and take.

Starting in 2013-2014, teachers will need four years to get tenure and must have consistently positive evaluations to keep it. Conversely, two consecutive negative ratings will allow districts to begin dismissal proceedings.

“I never thought I would get everything I wanted,” Christie said. “And there comes a point when you need to make a decision as a leader that what you are getting is enough to make a difference.”

“The fact is, I still believe that [seniority] is a serious issue that we need to have more public discussion on,” he said. “But ultimately, my decision was there was enough really good things in this bill that I was not going to allow it not to become law because it didn’t have everything I wanted.”

What happens next, Christie said there would be new proposals to try again to end the rights known as “last in first out,” or LIFO.

Almost on cue, state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) put out a press release yesterday in which he pledged new legislation to end LIFO, as well as press again for merit pay and new rules for teacher placements, other measures that didn’t survive the final bill. Kyrillos, who is the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, filed Christie’s first tenure reform bill.

“Let today’s accomplishment motivate this legislature to modify all tenure laws that protect failing educators and excessive public education costs,” Kyrillos said in a statement.

Cerf made a plug for it, too. He called the current LIFO law that gives preference to a teacher with a single day more in seniority, regardless of overall effectiveness, “indefensible from a moral or any other perspective.”

Later, he said it was not a matter of Christie bending on the issue. “That's not bending; that's timing and tactics,” Cerf said in an email.

Still, Ruiz yesterday made little or no mention at all about seniority or LIFO, instead listing a half-dozen other education issues she wants to tackle. And even Christie didn’t press too hard when asked for specifics.

“I imagine I’ll make lots of proposals in the next year,” he said.

In the end, Ruiz said she herself was never sure the final bill would come to fruition, let alone be signed with unanimous support from both Democrats and Republicans.

“I was told when I first asked staff to explore the subject matter that it was political suicide, and that I didn’t know anything about public education,” she said. “The emails and phone calls came in, and it was a moment where it was easy to give up.”

“But you sit back and realize that you can’t just not to do anything,” Ruiz said. “The truth is this was never about giving anyone a tool to get rid of low-performing teachers. It wasn’t about headlines or setting an agenda on a national level."

“It was about what I thought was right and what we know, that the teacher has the greatest impact on our children and what happens in the classroom.”

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