Could New Jersey Tenure Reform Be Affected by New Federal Law?

John Mooney | December 11, 2015 | Education
Most in NJ take wait-and-see attitude regarding scaling back of federal education mandates for teacher evaluations

Credit: Grace Moylan, NJPSA
NJ Commissioner of Education David Hespe
Over the many months that New Jersey debated and finally enacted a new teacher- tenure law, one of the common refrains regarding its more stringent teacher-evaluation requirements was that the standards were in line with federal mandates.

That changed yesterday, when President Barack Obama signed the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and sent into oblivion the No Child Left Behind Act — and, with it, almost any federal role in teacher evaluation: no more federal requirements for using uniform models to judge teachers, no more demands that student test scores be factored into those ratings.

But exactly what it means for New Jersey is an open question.

Will lawmakers move to water down teacher-evaluation requirements, which have already seen considerable compromise? Will student performance be eliminated altogether from how teachers are judged?

Several key players this week were sticking with the status quo, at least for the time being, saying there is much still to review in the new law. It’s not even certain when ESSA will take effect.

State Education Commissioner David Hespe said New Jersey’s TEACHNJ law, including its requirement for including at least some measure of student performance based on state assessments, should be kept intact.

A series of compromises over the last year has reduced to just 10 percent of the formula how much student performance could be factored into teacher ratings this year and last.

“I think the law is working well, and I don’t see a lot of interest in doing something differently,” Hespe said this week. “I’m very comfortable that we are where we need to be.”

The state law’s architect, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), wasn’t commenting yesterday, and lobbyists said they hadn’t heard about any plans for changes in the state’s evaluation process.

“Not sure if there is a push to open up that can of worms,” said one lobbyist.

Even the chief lobbyist for the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, which has fought to minimize the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations, said it would be premature to predict any new actions.

“This is a complicated and very new law,” wrote Ginger Gold, director of governmental relations for the NJEA, in an email. “While we appreciate the added flexibility provided to states, we are still sorting out what this will mean in terms of implementation.”

But others suggested that much could change in New Jersey with a new administration in place after the 2017 gubernatorial election, with early frontrunners like state Senate President Steve Sweeney among those who had pressed the Christie administration to scale back the impact of student testing.

Some advocates said the rollback of federal requirements clearly provides more leeway for states when it comes to teacher evaluation, but they say it’s hard to gauge the impact on New Jersey with so many other forces at work.

“It takes away the gun to the head, which isn’t good,” said Shavar Jeffries, the new president of Democrats for Education Reform, a nationwide organization pressing for tenure reform. “But by itself, it doesn’t change the state’s approach.”