It was quite the scene at the Statehouse Annex yesterday as the Senate Education Committee heard public testimony on Sen. Teresa Ruiz’s tenure reform bill, TEACHNJ (S 1455). Celebrities included Mayor Cory Booker, NJEA’s Barbara Keshishian and Vince Giordano, Ed. Comm. Christopher Cerf (who stuck his head in while his staff was testifying), and Joseph Del Grosso, prez of the Newark Teachers Union. Here’s coverage from the Star-Ledger, The Record, NJ Spotlight, and the Courier Post.
A couple of highlights:
The main gripe of supporters of the bill (who far outnumbered detractors in the room) was a last-minute backtrack that would eliminate LIFO (“last in, first out”) for only new employees and grandfather everyone else in under the old rules. In other words, with the exception of brand-new employees, administrators would have to disregard classroom effectiveness when making lay-off decisions. Here’s NJ Spotlight’s coverage:
The superintendent of Perth Amboy schools, Janine Caffrey, testified that it was critical that schools have the opportunity to move on existing teachers who do not make the grade.
“Don’t tell me we’re not in a hurry and will grandfather people who have been here a while,” Caffrey said.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker, making a rare appearance at a Statehouse hearing, said it was a flaw in a bill he said was otherwise critical to the success of his city’s school district.
“It seems to me monumentally absurd to have a bill that is debated and ultimately agreed upon,” Booker said, “and then somehow forgives and forgets all the teachers who are there and only applies to new teachers in the profession.”
He said it will especially affect Newark, which is shrinking in enrollment and closing schools. “The urgency for change does not just apply to new teachers,” he said.
Assistant Education Commissioner Andy Smarick testified also against the new bill language: “There are teachers, for whatever reason, that are not as good as we’d hope they’d be, and we want to be able to deal honestly with that. By delaying implementation of this for what could be decades is hard for us to defend. … Today’s kids deserve it, not just kids 10 and 20 years from now.”
However, Ginger Gold Schnitzer of NJEA said that “seniority was the only fair way to do lay-offs.” Del Grosso of the Newark arm of AFT said that eliminating current tenure rules – which require districts to lay-off employees in order of seniority – would turn teachers into “serfs.” Stan Karp of the Education Law Center lined right up with those fearful that updating archaic tenure laws would lead to corrupt administrators laying off with higher salaries in order to keep costs down.
(What are the odds of this scenario occurring in school districts desperate for improved student outcomes? I’d put it at slim to none. Great teachers are worth every penny of their salaries – and more; school officials know this.)
Let’s hope the Committee reconsiders this abrupt dismantling of one of the most important elements of the bill.
Also troubling to many in the Annex was uncertainty surrounding the spanking-new teacher evaluation model (EE4NJ) now piloting in 11 school districts. The NJ DOE’s original plan was to implement this model, which uses multiple measures, statewide in the 2012-2013 school year. As DOE officials Andy Smarick and David Hespe noted in their testimony before the Senate Education Committee yesterday, the timeline’s been redrawn. New plans call for every district to implement at least one element of the new teacher evaluation rubric, with full-scale roll-out in 2013-2014. In addition, Rutgers Graduate School of Education will assess the pilot’s effectiveness.
Sen. Ruiz quizzed DOE officials closely, noting that the bill’s timeline is based on DOE projections of full implementation of the teacher evaluation model.
Opponents of the tenure reform bill jumped all over the reconfiguration of the rollout: “Addressing tenure without …. (established) evaluation is like building a house before the foundation is set,” said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, NJEA’s director of government relations. Representatives from NJ Supervisors and Principals Association urged the Committee to hold off until the evaluation system was proven and fool-proof.
Sure, we could wait until we have a perfect model to evaluate teachers based on student outcomes, one tried and true and impermeable, unmarked by subjectivity and certain to never penalize a teacher unfairly. But as Mayor Booker eloquently noted in regard to eliminating LIFO for only new teachers, such a move would privilege the rights of adults over the rights of children to have consistent access to effective teachers.
Sen. Ruiz has been bold and collaborative, visionary and inclusive, in the crafting of a bill that finds the delicate balance between protecting the rights of union members and rewriting archaic laws that get interfere with the access of children, particularly poor ones, to effective teachers. Waiting for the a complete vetting of an evaluation model (which would take years), exempting current teachers from the indefensible practice of LIFO, would undermine that work. The moment is now.