Tenure will be harder for New Jersey teachers to get and easier to lose under a law Gov. Chris Christie signed Monday after deciding he can live with a compromise that keeps seniority as the way to determine which educators lose their jobs in the case of layoffs.
Even as he signed the law — a major one for advocates for improving New Jersey's public education system — the Republican governor called for doing more.
"Now is the time to build on this record of cooperation and results to put in place further reforms focused on our students by ending the flawed practice of last in-first out," Christie said in a statement Monday.
Nonetheless, this was a big win for Christie, who has been unable to get Democrats to buy into his other key education initiatives: merit pay for teachers and vouchers allowing children in failing public schools attend classes elsewhere. So, the governor also took a few moments to savor the bipartisan teacher tenure agreement, which took more than two years to broker and represents the first significant changes to the century-old job protection law.
"It's a great day," Christie said after signing the law at a middle school in Middlesex. "It's a great day for good teachers because good teachers will do well under this system."
Among those who lent support Monday were officials with the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union and a frequent critic of his education plans. But on this major policy, the union agreed with the compromise. The union's support for a deal brokered by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, a Democrat from Newark, was a factor in the bill's unanimous passage in June in both chambers of the Legislature.
Though no one from the teachers union spoke publicly during the bill signing, the two executives with whom Christie has tangled most infamously — Executive Director Vince Giordano and President Barbara Keshishian — attended after being invited by the governor's office.
The union issued a statement calling the law a "win-win" for students, parents and teachers, but afterward Giordano cautioned not to read too much into the compromise.
Just because different interests agree to talk, he said, doesn't mean they will always arrive at a solution. The two remain on opposite sides over seniority protections, for example, with the administration wanting to do away with seniority and the union wanting to preserve it as the basis for layoffs.
Assembly Democrats and a group representing school boards immediately praised Christie's signing of the law.
"The new law creates an essential link between the tenure process and teacher performance," Marie Bilik, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, said in a statement.
Instead of getting tenure protections automatically after three years on the job, teachers will now have to wait at least four years — and they will have to get good marks in a new, more rigorous evaluation process. They can also lose those protections and can face firing by performing poorly in evaluations.
The law has provisions designed to speed up the process of firing teachers who get poor marks, but it also has new methods to try to help those educators improve.
It also leaves New Jersey as one of only 11 states with a last-in, first-out policy for educators in the face of layoffs.
The state of public education is a perpetual issue in New Jersey. Per-student costs, and the property tax that pays most of the bills, are among the highest in the nation. And while the state's students are among the top on test scores overall, there are huge disparities in performances between affluent suburbs and low-income cities.
Seniority is a major bugaboo for Christie and many others interested in improving schools. But neither the NJEA nor the American Federation of Teachers would sign on to New Jersey's bill if it were eliminated. The unions believe they are sullied by low-performing teachers, and that fighting their dismissals can be too costly for them.
Back in June, Christie said he was weighing whether there were enough good things left in the bill for him to sign it.
But since then, he has spoken more effusively of it with nearly every public appearance.
Some education advocates are likely to continue pushing for seniority to be eliminated. The NJEA, meanwhile, is focusing on the details of the teacher evaluation process that will be used. Details of the evaluation system and data collection to tie student achievement to individual teachers are still being tested; the goal is to have them ready for the 2013-2014 school year.
Christie said Monday that he expects to sign a higher education overhaul bill this month. That measure reorganizes higher education by breaking up the University of Medicine and Dentistry and divvying it up to Rutgers and Rowan University, designating Rowan a research university and facilitating science-related partnerships between Rowan, in Glassboro, and Rutgers' Camden campus.
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