The time is now for tenure reform in New Jersey

Why is it so hard for the New Jersey State Legislature to arrive at consensus on changes to NJ’s antiquated teacher tenure laws?

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

Why is it so hard for the New Jersey State Legislature to arrive at consensus on changes to NJ’s antiquated teacher tenure laws? The public is ready: a recent Quinnipiac poll showed that 60% of NJ residents support tenure reform.

Legislators from both sides of the aisle agree that our creaky job protection law, etched in 1909, makes it too onerous (think years) and expensive (think hundreds of thousands of dollars) for school districts to remove ineffective teachers and administrators. Current state law forces school districts, during times of lay-offs, to dismiss teachers based solely on years served, a practice bemoaned by anyone who values student achievement. (This practice is known as LIFO, or “last in, first out.”)

But changes to current tenure law remain elusive, in spite of the hard cold reality that in the last decade NJ public school districts have managed to fire only 47 teachers out of a cadre of over 100,000.

However, a current bill before the State Legislature (S1455), painstakingly crafted by Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), is creeping forward though the purgatory of committee-land. But not without rancorous debate.

Advocates for tenure reform argue that the practice of awarding lifetime job protection after a few years of adequate performance (current NJ statute has it at three) is obsolete and adult-centered, a ghost of industrial labor union history, a relic from the bad old days before the implementation of rigid nepotism policies.

Detractors of tenure reform argue that America’s new focus on classroom accountability and the use of standardized test scores to gauge teacher effectiveness is too new a shift to justify major changes in job security. Teachers with 20 years in the business entered the profession with an explicit bargain of continued employment, and it’s not fair to change the rules mid-game. Also, many teachers leave on their own accord, so statistics regarding job removal don’t tell the whole story.

Certainly, that’s NJEA’s stance.

At a Senate Education Committee hearing on Sen. Ruiz’s bill on March 5th, union officials declaimed the proposed legislation, arguing that the evolving science of evaluating teachers by student achievement is too new to be fair and the NJ DOE’s new data system is untested. (Worth noting is that NJEA must feel zeitgeist nipping at its heels and has introduced its own, exceedingly weak, tenure reform proposal.)

NJEA should be commended for its full-throated opposition to any threat to its members’ job security. And it may be the reports of the NJEA’s waning power in Trenton are, like the premature notices of Mark Twain’s death, greatly exaggerated. Indeed, at that Senate Education Committee hearing three weeks ago, Sen. Ruiz announced – to the shock of reform advocates in the room – a spanking-new emendation to the bill which would eliminate LIFO only for newly-hired staff members. Everyone else? Old rules apply.

The decision to gut the bill so that LIFO is eliminated only for new hires is like that scene from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” where the Thuggee cult leader rips the beating heart out of a sacrificial victim. All that’s left is a dead body.

Politics demands compromise. But when does a concession become an evisceration?

Certainly, the time to pass tenure reform is right now. As Brian Osborne, superintendent of South Orange/Maplewood argued at the hearing, the Ruiz bill “will die on the vine if the legislation is not passed, and we’ll let the moment slip away.”

It’s that moment – all too common in politics – when leaders need to balance competing voices of ambition and prudence, of idealism and pragmatics, of vision and mechanics.

But sometimes prudence and pragmatism is a cop-out. In this case it is. Senator Ruiz and the Education Committee should restore the original language of the bill so that the application of the hoary practice of LIFO goes away for good.

Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJleftbehind.

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