NJ’s Competing Tenure Reform Bills: Big Concessionon on LIFO

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There’s been an addendum to the NJ Senate Budget Committee meeting set for Monday. According to today’s NJ Spotlight, Senator Teresa Ruiz’s tenure reform bill will be on the agenda. And the competing bill in the Assembly, Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan’s far weaker bill tenure reform bill, will come up for a hearing before the Assembly Education Committee tomorrow.
Spotlight has posted both bills: here’s the Ruiz bill and here’s the Diegnan bill, which is in draft form.

A few highlights:

Both bills add an additional year to the attainment of tenure, from the current three years to four years.  Both bills add rigor to current first-year mentoring programs. Both bills mandate that teachers be rated in four different categories during annual evaluations.  The Ruiz bill’s language is “ineffective,” “partially effective, “effective,” and “highly effective.” The Diegnan bill’s language is “ineffective,” “approaching effective,” “effective,” and “highly effective.”

There the similarities end. As Spotlight notes,

Diegnan’s bill mirrors Ruiz’s in setting three years of positive evaluations for tenure, but is less specific as to what happens to teachers after poor evaluations. It would only demand tenure charges be filed after three years, not actually revocation of tenure.
Diegnan’s bill also lays out a process of binding arbitration for contested cases, not the administrative court specified in Ruiz’s bill. He also makes no reference to easing seniority rights for teachers, which protects more experienced teachers in the face of layoffs, a key component of Ruiz’s bill.

Other differences abound. A keystone of Ruiz’s bill is a “School Improvement Panel,” comprised of a principal, assistant principal, and a teacher not employed at the school, which evaluates teachers, oversees mentoring programs, and directs professional development. Diegnan leaves the current system alone. An important component of Ruiz’s bill is “mutual consent,” by which a teacher can’t be moved within the district to another building without consent from both the teacher and the principal. Diegnan’s bill is silent on that one.

Most importantly, the Ruiz bill addresses the controversial practice of “first in, last out” (LIFO). Under the current system, when a district, because of falling enrollment of lack of money is forced to lay off teachers, those with less seniority must be laid off first, regardless of classroom effectiveness.

Here’s the new section in Ruiz’s bill:

Beginning with the 2014-2015 school year, in the event of a reduction in force, tenured and nontenured teachers, principals, assistant principals and vice-principals, other than those who acquired tenure prior to the effective date [of the passage of this bill] and continuously maintain their tenure, shall be dismissed based on district and school needs in each certification area, and then in the following order:

(1)    Rating of ineffective on the annual summative evaluation from the previous school year, and then on the basis of seniority;
(2)    Rating of partially effective on the annual summative evaluation from the previous school year, and then on the basis of seniority;
(3)    Rating of effective on the annual summative evaluation from the previous school year, and then on the basis of seniority;
(4)    Rating of highly effective on the annual summative evaluation from the previous school year, and then on the basis of seniority.

In other words, schools can retain more effective teachers even if they have accrued fewer years in the district. But, in a big concession to NJEA and AFT, the bill now specifies that this new policy will only be applied to staff members who have not yet acquired tenure before the passage of the bill.

This past March during public testimony at the Senate Education Committee’s hearing on Senator Teresa Ruiz’s bill (see coverage here), a number of people pleaded with the legislators to not change the bill language to grandfather in all current tenured teachers. For example,  Newark Mayor Cory Booker said,“It seems to me monumentally absurd to have a bill that is debated and ultimately agreed upon, and then somehow forgives and forgets all the teachers who are there and only applies to new teachers in the profession.”

Assistant Education Commissioner Andy Smarick said,“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.”

On the other hand, Newark AFT President Joseph Del Grosso complained that such a change would “turn teachers into serfs,” and an NJEA spokesperson said that “seniority was the only fair way to do lay-offs.”

So political expediency won out and Sen. Ruiz made a change that improves the bill’s chances of passage. Current tenured teachers retain LIFO. New teachers won’t. It will take a generation to change the system.

Everything’s relative. Even with the new concession, Ruiz’s bill actually makes meaningful changes to archaic tenure laws compared with milquetoast Diegnan. Better something than nothing, right?

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  • kallikak, June 13, 2012 @ 5:38 pm Reply

    You're talking yourself out of a job, Laura. Doesn't Ruiz' bill empower principals over Supers and boards as regards hiring new teachers?

  • NJ Left Behind, June 13, 2012 @ 7:09 pm Reply

    Yup. It does empower principals in exactly the way you describe. Isn't it more appropriate for principals to have that authority?

  • kallikak, June 14, 2012 @ 1:48 pm Reply

    Only if it is mated with commensurate responsibility and accountability.

    As I recall, Boards and Supers–not principals–are legally responsible for goings-on in their districts.

    Are principals ready to see their names in the caption block of legal pleadings under the heading “defendant”?

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