Waiting a Little Longer for Long-Awaited Tenure Reform Bill

John Mooney | June 9, 2011 | Education
Despite some favorable comments from both sides of the aisle, Sen. Ruiz's bill is still a work in progress

The tenure reform bill from state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) was much anticipated and long awaited, a proposal from a leading figure in the Democratic-led legislature that actually had a decent shot at passing.

It may take a little longer than expected.

Ruiz said yesterday that she had initially hoped to have the bill heard and even approved by summer. But in talks with various key players and organizations, she said a number of issues have arisen, from how teacher seniority would work to the role of principals in hiring and firing.

Ruiz always said the bill was a work in progress, and yesterday said that work may take some more time.

“Right now the major thing is the budget, and as I’m a member of that committee, that’s my main attention,” Ruiz said.

“There are a lot of critical issues we need to deal with in this bill,” she continued. “I don’t intend to move any of this without all the stakeholders involved.”

Ruiz’s bill would change much of how New Jersey’s century-old tenure system would work. Educators wouldn’t get protection until after their fourth year, instead of the current three, and would need three consecutive years of satisfactory evaluations to keep tenure. After two years of “ineffective” ratings, they would lose the tenure protections.

Among other details, every school would have teams of administrators and at least one teacher that would decide on evaluations. Principals would also have a stronger say in transfers and hires.

The bill complements in some ways and conflicts in others with Gov. Chris Christie’s own plans for tenure reform. And there has been a lot of discussion on all sides about the details. Christie’s proposal is incorporated in a separate bill proposed by state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth).

Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said yesterday that he has reviewed Ruiz’s bill and found a lot that the administration can work with.

“There is a great deal in common,” he said. “In both bills, tenure is no longer granted by just the passage of time, but through an objective judgment of the performance of the teacher.”

Still, he said there are some differences to bridge. For instance, Christie’s bill calls for tenure to be lost after just one year of the lowest rating. It would also do away with seniority as a factor in whether a teacher is laid off, while Ruiz’s bill allows for current teachers to retain seniority rights.

Cerf only said of Ruiz’s take on that seniority issue: “I respect the senator’s perspective.”

Yet, the senator is also getting pushback from the other side. The teachers unions have hardly embraced her plan. Leaders of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the dominant union, met with Ruiz the day she filed the bill but not since.

“We have a lot of questions,” said Steve Baker, an NJEA spokesman. “A lot of people need to be in this, and a lot of questions need to be answered.”

Ruiz did meet with leaders of the smaller American Federation of Teachers (AFT) on Monday, including the president of the Newark Teachers Union (NTU), Joseph Del Grosso.

Del Grosso said the Trenton meeting was productive, and he applauded Ruiz for some of the evaluation details, including the school teams. But he said other pieces are still problematic, including the powers ultimately vested in principals.

“We like some of the beginning, but as the bill progresses, it gets back to denigrating teachers,” he said. “The peer review is good, but still gives the principals too much power. You are empowering the people who haven’t done their job in the first place.”

That’s been an issue for others, too, from other perspectives. Lobbyists for school boards and superintendents said they wondered what are their members’ roles under the new system.

“We’re wondering if the district leaders are being left out of the loop,” said Lynne Strickland, director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, a suburban schools organization. “All of this is a major change, and as with any major change, these things need to be looked at and discussed thoroughly.”

Ruiz concurred and said she was not ruling out the Senate education committee, of which she is chairman, holding hearings through the summer and fall that would delve into some of these issues, not to mention other looming issues around education, including charter schools and special education. The legislature typically recesses for the summer and, in this election year, through the fall.

If the legislature does not return, the bill would then likely not be taken up until after the November election, possibly in the lame duck session. Most of those interviewed said at this point, a more deliberate approach may be the way to go, and they commended Ruiz for continuing to hear different perspectives.

“Sen. Ruiz is the perfect sponsor for this bill, which is a long time coming and significant legislation for our state,” said Kathleen Nugent, New Jersey director of Democrats for Education Reform, a national group that has pressed for tenure changes.

“Her approach is very thoughtful and comprehensive,” Nugent continued in an email. “Throughout her drafting process, she has engaged education experts statewide and looked at best practices across the country. She continues this work today. At the end of this, we are sure to have an exceptional bill that will elevate the teaching profession in New Jersey and help ensure we have an effective teacher in every classroom.”