Lawmakers and Lobbyists Alike Begin to Explore Tenure Strategies

Longer time to tenure, mentors, a streamlined dismissal process, and meaningful teacher evaluations are all on the agenda

With tenure reform on everyone’s lips in Trenton, some of the ideas are starting to be put on paper, too, as lawmakers begin to frame their strategies for what coming legislation could look like.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the Senate’s lead player on the issue as chairman of its education committee, yesterday laid out some of the core principles that she said would likely be included in legislation she is beginning to draft.

They would include lengthening the time it takes to receive tenure from the current three years, adding a strong mentoring piece for new teachers and streamlining the dismissal process. In between, there would be some periodic review tied to teacher evaluations, Ruiz said, although she did not say if that would be a renewal or recertification.

“This tenure reform bill is not about a first-time employee,” Ruiz said in an interview. “It’s to ensure an individual who gets hired in a public school system has an opportunity to be monitored in a fair way, from beginning to end. And supported as well. It’s about respecting good teachers.”

Five Years to Tenure

Meanwhile, her counterpart in the Assembly, state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) said he also would support extending the amount of time required to receive tenure to five years. An Assembly bill that contains that extension has already been drafted, he said.

But Diegnan, chairman of the Assembly’s education panel, said he did not see the need for a major overhaul of tenure protections.

“Yes, maybe it needs some attention,” he said in an interview. “But I am an advocate of tenure, and abolishing it would be a mistake. You don’t want every time a new school board gets elected that it goes after a teacher it doesn’t like.”

There is, of course, another big player in this debate, and the Democrats’ comments come as Gov. Chris Christie’s administration is still formulating its own plans. A task force appointed by the governor is currently meeting to devise a statewide evaluation system for teachers and principals that would help determine how they are paid, retained and potentially dismissed.

Christie has said a proposal to eliminate tenure is not out of the question, saying it has protected bad teachers at the expense of schoolchildren.

Merits and Demerits

Yesterday, Ruiz reflected on last week’s five-hour hearing before her committee, where educators, experts, association leaders and academics testified on the merits and demerits of the tenure job protections.

“There were a lot things echoed that are things that I would definitely have strong consideration for in the bill,” she said. “We heard that extending the timeframe would really prove positive to really giving a person an opportunity to fulfill their full achievement. Or mentoring them in the first year, which has significant positive impact.”

She also said the dismissal process for ineffective teachers clearly needs to be improved, providing a system that would be “a fair way but a cleaner way.”

“And certainly an evaluation process after you become tenured,” she said. “We have to ensure that any individual in the classroom has proven effectiveness and success during their lifetime.”

Streamlined Dismissal Process

The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the teachers union, has weighed in with its own proposal that focuses on speeding up the legal process for dismissing poor-performing teachers. It would move the process from the legal system, which critics and supporters alike have said is too costly and burdensome, to independent arbitrators who would make a final decision within three months.

The NJEA has also proposed strengthening the state’s mentoring requirements, which demand that all rookie teachers have veteran mentors on staff but provides no resources or assistance for training those mentors.

“That will take a financial commitment,” said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the NJEA’s chief lobbyist. “It does not happen by just having the teacher and mentor meet after school once in a while, there’s real time for professional collaboration.”

Schnitzer said the proposal to extend the probationary period before tenure has some merits, but not without that additional mentoring piece. “We don’t think expanding it for the sake of expanding it makes much sense,” she said.

And she said she would strongly oppose any renewable contracts or other recertification system to replace tenure.

“Until you make sure you have a good evaluation system, you can’t do this,” she said. “Schools could just find people at the top of the salary guide, put them on probation, and then fire them to replace with a younger cheaper teacher.”