The Assembly education committee advanced a bill that would make it harder for teachers to attain tenure and shorten the process for firing educators who repeatedly rate poorly on annual evaluations.
Also, Sen. Teresa Ruiz, who chairs the Senate's education committee, introduced an alternative measure and said the Senate's budget committee would consider that bill Monday.
The two bills are similar in many respects.
"This is of great importance," Ruiz said, adding that the legislation is among a handful of policy changes that could dramatically improve the state's public school system.
But neither her bill nor Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan's includes a key provision that Gov. Chris Christie has been promoting for years: An end to using seniority as the prime consideration in deciding which teachers are ousted when schools go through layoffs. Ruiz previously agreed with the governor on that point, but said she didn't include that provision in her bill so that it would be more likely to pass.
The governor would not comment Thursday on the bills, a Christie spokesman said. Christie said earlier this week that he hoped a bill could be adopted by June 30. But he also has warned lawmakers not to send him a "watered-down" measure.
Christie often cites a change in tenure laws as critical to improving public schools in New Jersey, whose schools on average rank among the nation's best by some measures but where several low-income districts have problems that have vexed policy makers for generations.
The Christie administration has laid the groundwork for overhauling tenure by experimenting with a program that would require teachers and some other school employees to have more frequent and more comprehensive job evaluations. For some educators, student progress on standardized tests would be a factor. And all of them would be assigned one of four ratings—a big change from the "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory" marks that most districts use now.
Christie wants the evaluations to be part of not only determining which educators get and keep tenure, but also which ones get merit-based raises. Neither bill now addresses merit pay.
Tenure has been one of the main issues dividing Christie and the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, which has run ads attacking the governor's policies.
He often says tenure needs to be changed because hardly any teachers are dismissed for ineffectiveness—only 18 in 10 years. NJEA officials say the problem isn't as bad as the governor portrays: About 40 percent of new teachers never make tenure, they say, often because they are ushered out before they reach the three-year mark to qualify under the current law.
Ruiz said she consulted with both the union and the state Education Department as she drafted her bill, which would award tenure only to teachers who rank as "effective" or "highly effective" twice between their second and fourth year on the job.
Under her proposal, like Diegnan's, teachers would have to go through mentoring programs before attaining tenure. And neither would award tenure protections until educators had put in four years.
Though there are differences in the details, low-performing teachers would have a chance to improve under both bills. And those who don't would face "tenure charges."
Both plans also call for using arbitrators rather than courts to decide whether it's just to fire teachers deemed ineffective. Both would also impose time limits on how long the arbitrator has to decide the case. That's seen as key because both school districts and unions run up large legal bills when tenure battles are protracted.
After years of rancor, the hearing for Diegnan's bill Thursday was calm. It was under an hour long, and groups including the NJEA and representatives of school boards and principals endorsed parts of the plan but expressed reservations about others. Seven committee members endorsed the plan, none opposed it and three abstained.
Diegnan said his proposal will weed out bad teachers without stripping educators' rights.
"We don't want to politicize the school system," he said. "You don't want a situation where a teacher is afraid to give the mayor's son a 'D' for fear their job is on their line."
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