Legislature Gets a Look at the Ruiz Tenure Bill — at Long Last

John Mooney | May 27, 2011 | Education
With filing, Ruiz's tenure reform bill joins two other prominent measures now under review

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) posted her long-awaited teacher tenure reform bill yesterday. Now the legislative jockeying begins in earnest.

Ruiz’s proposal — called the Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey Act (TEACHNJ) — is just one of three prominent bills dealing with tenure reform before the legislature.

The two others are Gov. Chris Christie’s bill, sponsored by state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), and another from state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middelsex), chairman of the Assembly’s education committee, a bill endorsed by the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the state’s dominant teachers union.

Across the Aisle

Just the appearance of Ruiz’s bill is no small feat. The chairman of the Senate education committee has been working on it for almost a year, and it’s already drawing some nice words from across the aisle, including from Christie.

Still, these are three very different bills, each with its own constituency and its own way of dealing with critical issues like tenure, seniority, and mentoring.

For instance, Ruiz has proposed ending seniority as a deciding factor in teacher layoffs or school closures, but only for teachers hired after the law is enacted. The governor has been adamant against seniority being the basis of any decision for any teacher.

At the other end of the spectrum, the NJEA has fought hard against removing seniority as a determining factor for any teacher’s fate. Diegnan’s largely centers on the process surrounding tenure charges and not the issues of who gets tenure or not.

Ruiz is well aware of the battles ahead. She said this is the beginning, not the end, of discussions, and she knows very well that more changes will be made in the coming weeks and months. But with a law enacted in New Jersey in 1907, the first in the nation, she said she is patient to make changes that will draw broad support.

“It’s been over a century and we need to do something,” she said in an interview. “I’ll do what I have to do to get this bill posted, passed and signed.”

Out In Front

Ruiz is clearly the leading contender, due to her place in the Senate leadership and the work she put into the draft. Both Christie and Kyrillos yesterday called it a strong starting point for negotiation.

“A lot of it is good, and it’s a great place to begin discussions,” Christie said in a press conference. “It looks like the beginnings of real reform.”

Keeping a months-old promise, Ruiz also met with leaders of the NJEA, laying out the framework and trying to enlist their support. They were less than enthusiastic afterward, but said there were provisions that they were open to discuss.

“Whether we are at a total meeting of the minds, we’ll see,” said Vince Giordano, executive director of the 200,000-member union. “I’m sure we won’t agree on everything, but I have also said to her that where we don’t agree, we will agree to disagree.”

He said the issue of seniority may be one such place of disagreement.

“We believe seniority serves a purpose,” he said. “When it was first put in, it was to deal with political interference [in the decisions as to whether to fire teachers]. I’m not sure that has much changed.”

Ruiz’s bill adds a few other twists that break from both Christie’s and the union’s line.

For example, Ruiz is proposing to grant tenure to teachers after their first four years of teaching, instead of the current three. The added year would be one of intensive mentorship of new teachers, something now in law but inconsistently applied.

“I am not sure we have done the best job with professional development and mentorship in this state,” Ruiz said.

Much like Christie and Kyrrillos’ bill, Ruiz’s would maintain tenure for teachers as long as they receive at least three consecutive evaluations of “effective,” in part based on student achievement, according to the bill, but skirting how exactly that will be measured for the time being.

But she would have only two ratings, “effective” or “ineffective,” compared to four different levels under the governor’s proposal. Ruiz said that was one area for potential compromise.

A tougher difference to bridge may be Ruiz’s proposal that teachers who receive “ineffective” ratings for two years in a row would lose tenure, although they would have a streamlined appeals process to challenge the decision. If they received two years of “effective” ratings, they would regain it.

Christie and Kyrillos’ proposal would take tenure away from teachers after one year, and they would need three years to regain it.

In addition, Ruiz would add a new voice to the process, creating “school improvement teams” in every school that would play a central part in the hiring, evaluation and promotion of teachers, as well as decisions about their tenure. The teams will be made up of the principal, vice principal and a selected teacher.