Christie Touts Bipartisan Tenure Reform Bill, But Still Hasn’t Signed

Governor downplays what didn't go his way, teacher seniority and closer ties to student test scores

Gov. Chris Christie is sounding more and more like a man who will sign New Jersey’s tenure reform bill. A week after it landed on his desk, however, the questions remain when and with what adds he may have.

The governor’s office has been quiet on what happens next to the bill that unanimously passed both the Senate and the Assembly in the waning days of June, his staff only saying he continues to review it.

But few doubt he’ll sign it, especially since the governor himself has been touting the bill as a model of bipartisanship, most recently before a national audience on Monday at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

“For the first time in 100 years, we have reform to our teacher tenure laws,” he said at the liberal-leaning think tank.

The governor, in a broad-ranging policy speech, used the opportunity to take another dig at the New Jersey Education Association, reiterating his familiar refrain that the teachers’ union spent more than $20 million in media campaigns against him over the last two years.

Still, the governor also described the union as a willing partner in the deal eventually reached under the bill sponsored by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex).

“Two years of doing [attacks], guess what happened: the teachers’ union came to the table, and we negotiated [changes to] the tenure law that is the oldest in the country,” he said.

What he chose to highlight in the bill was interesting in itself. He played up the main thrust of the measure, that weaker teachers could now be brought up on tenure charges after two years of substandard evaluations.

But he neglected two issues that didn’t go his way. First, teacher seniority rights were left untouched as part of the political compromise. Second, language was added that prevents student test scores from being a “predominant” factor in all teacher evaluations.

‘We’re putting accountability back into the system,” Christie said. “Student test scores must be accounted for in those evaluations, as well as peer review. And now principals and superintendents will have the opportunity to manage their school systems in a way that allows them to put their students first and put the best possible teachers they can find at the front of that classroom.”

“Imagine that, and that was accomplished also in a bipartisan way, with Republican and Democratic votes,” he said. “It took a two-and-a-half-year fight, but we accomplished it two weeks ago.”

But for all the positive signs, there remains little indication as to when he will sign the bill and what he may want to add.

His spokesman said yesterday that the office for now would let the governor’s comments speak for themselves. The timing isn’t all that critical, since the law wouldn’t go into full effect until the 2013-2014 school year.

However, even in voting for the bill, Republican legislative leaders have not hidden their own displeasure, especially with the compromise on seniority, and that has raised the question as to whether Christie will express the same misgivings.

A spokesman for the NJEA, Steve Wollmer, said there were early rumors that the governor would not do anything for the required 45 days, and let the bill become law. But Wollmer said he now expects a public event.

“It would be silly for him to go around the country saying how great it is and not sign it,” said Wollmer. “Not sure what he’s waiting for, but he has 45 days.”

And Wollmer, the NJEA’s communications director, predicted it probably wasn’t the last from Christie on the topic of seniority. “I can see him using the signing as a springboard for taking on the seniority issue again,” he said.

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