Tenure Reform Law: The Debates Ahead

In the wake of Christie signing new law, questions as to how evaluations and arbitrators will work -- and who will pay for them

Much of the attention on New Jersey’s new teacher tenure law signed by Gov. Chris Christie last week has been on its new rules regarding teacher tenure, its focus on student achievement and evaluations for judging teachers, and its streamlined legal proceedings for removing the weakest.

Getting less press, however, have been some of the critical details that make up the bulk of the 18-page law, not to mention the 49 pages of proposed regulations put forward by the Christie administration last week concerning the teacher evaluation piece of it.

School Improvement Panels

Central to the new law — the Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey ACT (TEACH NJ) — is an improved evaluation system for teachers, one that will be based on approved evaluation instruments and professional standards that look at both teaching practices and student learning.

But who will direct those policies and perform those evaluations has always been a point of some contention, and the law settled on an interesting balance.

In each school, a School Improvement Panel will be created that will consist of a principal or his or her designee, an assistant or vice principal, and a teacher. The teacher will be a “person with a demonstrated record of success in the classroom,” chosen in consultation with the union.

The panel will be responsible for overseeing the mentoring of new teachers and will conduct the evaluations of all teachers. One interesting part is that the teacher member will not be allowed to be part of those evaluations, unless agreed to by the union.

The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s dominant teachers union, wanted that provision, so not to throw their members into the difficult situation of teachers evaluating teachers. The American Federation of Teachers, the smaller union but representing Newark teachers, has asked that teachers be included.

Arbitration Process

A key component of the new law is the use of special arbitrators to make decisions when a tenure charge against a teacher or principal is contested. The timelines that limit the extent of disputes also are new. The decisions of the arbitrators is binding.

But who will those arbitrators be? Under the terms of an intensely negotiated provision, 25 will be in place, all members of the National Academy of Arbitrators and chosen by various stakeholders in the debate.

Eight arbitrators will be picked by the NJEA; three, by the AFT; nine, by the New Jersey School Boards Association; and five, by the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association. Only if a vacancy goes unfilled will the state commissioner appoint an arbitrator.

The arbitrators will have set fees for their work, with a limit intended to cut down on the prospect of cases being extended to earn the arbitrator and the lawyers more money. An arbitrator can make no more than $1,250 per day and no more than $7,500 per case. The state pays the bill for each case.

The rules of dispute are critically important. The law explicitly allows the arbitrator only to decide if proper procedures were followed, and not the merits of the teacher evaluation itself.

There are some exceptions. A teacher can contest facts in the evaluation and can raise issues of favoritism, nepotism, or political payback for things such as union activity. Beyond that, the law is clear that the evaluator’s judgment to the quality of a teacher’s work is not open to challenge.

“The evaluator’s determination as to the quality of an employee’s classroom performance shall not be subject to an arbitrator’s review.”

The Financial Impact

How much will all this cost?

The law devotes exactly one line to overall cost, a subject sure to be a point of considerable debate in the years ahead: “The Department of Education shall provide the funds necessary to effectuate the provisions of this act.”

Beyond that, there is considerable speculation at this point but few real estimates as to what will surely be many millions of dollars spent to help train teachers on the new evaluation system, purchase the various evaluation instruments, and paying teachers and administrators for any extra duties.

The Christie administration dodges the issue in its new teacher evaluation regulations proposed last week to the state Board of Education. “School districts will be required to allocate funds to implement these regulations,” it said in the summary of the regulations.

But in an ongoing pilot program testing the evaluation system in 11 districts last year and another estimated 20 this coming year, the state has distributed a total of $3 million to get those districts rolling.

That is likely only a drop in the statewide bucket. The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services extrapolated those costs to come up with an estimated $50 million for teacher evaluations and another $11 million for principal evaluations.

There will be other costs, too, including a shift of the funding for required mentoring of new teachers back to the state after years where it was zero funded and left to the teachers themselves to pay.

And few can yet estimate how many cases will go to state arbitrators under the new system and whether legal costs will rise or even fall.

A common word in the OLS report is “indeterminate.” At this point, it applies to a large part of the law’s impact.

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