When is a Compromise Become a Cop-Out? (Think LIFO)

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Yesterday’s Star-Ledger editorial defined the essential problem with back-room negotiations regarding Sen. Teresa Ruiz’s tenure reform bill: while the earlier versions eliminated tenure protection for all teachers during lay-offs, current discussions indicate that the Legislature might bow to pressure and only eliminate LIFO (last in, first out) for newly-hired teachers.

The Ledger suggests the “Cami Anderson test”:

Anderson is the superintendent in Newark who has established an “excess teacher pool” for educators whom no principal wants. It has about 80 unneeded teachers in it, at a cost of $8 million a year.

That sounds crazy, but it’s not. Because under existing tenure rules, Anderson can reduce her staff only if she’s willing to lay off her best young teachers first. She won’t do it, and she’s right not to. Under the watered-down rules Democrats are considering, that would not change.

So here’s the test: If tenure reform doesn’t allow Anderson to get rid of the teachers no one wants, then it’s not real reform.

That’s an excellent litmus test, and the editorial itself is right on target. But here’s a few quibbles.

Firstly, the editorial oversimplifies the consensus among Jersey Democrats and Republicans on the issue of school choice, embodied in the movement to expand charter schools and enact the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA).

For example, the primary sponsor for a bill that would essentially shut down charter school growth by requiring a community vote is Democratic Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, who happens to be Chair of the Assembly Education Committee. Remember, charter schools start off small – sometimes just 100 kids – so how could any community coalesce a large enough constituency to pass a referendum when so few students would benefit?

Regarding OSA, an editorial earlier this year, also from the Star-Ledger, noted,

What is holding this up? In a word, Democrats. The teachers union, a pillar of the party’s support, is dead-set against this and party leaders are hesitant to anger the union again after passing pension and health reforms last summer.

Second quibble: the editorial says, “The irony is that Republicans are in lock-step support of reform while Democrats are not — even though the failing schools are mostly in Democratic territory.” That’s a red herring: failing schools tend to be in impoverished areas, and the core Democratic base happens to be less affluent voters.

Third (and last) quibble: the editorial understates the enormous impact of the Legislature’s enactment of pension/health benefits contributions reform two years ago. That bill was a cold shower on the cozy relations between Statehouse Democrats and NJEA, and wanton legislators are still trying to woo back betrayed union leaders. Eliminate tenure protection? That’s a tough sell.

But the cowardice of maintaining LIFO for NJ’s 127,000 current full-time teachers sets Sen. Ruiz’s bold bill back about 20 years. Sure, government is all about compromise. But compromise is not the same thing as a cop-out.

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