Do NJ’s Legislators Have the Will to Confront Teacher Tenure’s Obsolescence?

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As we enter the lame duck session of NJ’s Legislature, the word on the street is that tenure reform may play a starring role. Senator Teresa Ruiz’s tenure and teacher evaluation bill is ready for prime time and legislative review. Anticipating the discussion, NJEA, NJ’s primary teacher union, recently released its own version of tenure reform.

A recent article by Ben Velderman at EAG Communications criticizes New Jersey’s current teacher tenure laws as “so deeply flawed that 77 percent of state residents support tenure reform.” The news pivot for the article is the case of the Gloucester County Special Services teacher caught on camera calling a 15-year old special education student a “‘tard” and telling him that he would “kick his ass from her to kingdom come.” ABC News story here. The teacher is now on paid administrative leave because current tenure law precludes the district from simply firing him.

Velderman notes that the arcane process that school districts must follow to fire a tenured teacher costs several hundred thousand dollars and takes three to five years. He quotes the President of NJ’s primary teacher union, NJEA’s Barbara Keshishian, who agrees that “[t]he current system, which involves hearings in the courts, is too expensive and too time-consuming. NJEA proposes putting tenure cases before arbitrators, whose judgment would be final. Cases would be heard quickly and at a much lower cost.”

The poll Velderman refers to is probably the recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll, which found this:

After being briefed on the current K-12 teacher tenure system, 58 percent of registered voters disapprove of the tenure policies while only 40 percent approve. In a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll last October, just 28 percent approved tenure when told some believe it prevents bad teachers from being removed, rejecting the idea that it is necessary for academic freedom.

In addition the poll found that 6 out of 10 voters think that teacher evaluations should be tied to student achievement as measured on standardized tests and “nearly two-thirds want tenure linked directly to positive or negative teacher evaluations.” Also, “Garden Staters strongly believe teachers’ pay should be tied to new standards.” Support for tenure reform was lower for union households: only a third supported changes to the status quo.

Velderman spoke to NJ School Boards Association’s Michael Vrancik, who said that NJEA’s proposed plan merely “substitutes one unwieldy process, in my opinion, for one that is slightly less unwieldy.” Vrancik adds, “If it cuts the process in half, is that still acceptable? We need to find out the amount of time tenure review should take, and build a system to meet that.”

NJEA’s leadership should be applauded for taking a proactive stance; no doubt its 200,000 members are delighted to have a chance to play offense after a series of strategic missteps that saw the union mired in defensive posture. NJSBA’s Vrancik is right – NJEA’s reforms don’t go far enough, but this is all a negotiation, right? Everything now rests on the will of NJ’s State Legislature to take a tough look at hard questions and grapple with sensible changes to a system that doesn’t make sense to almost everyone.

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