NJEA and Schundler Embrace Ed Reform?

Word’s out: Ed. Comm. Schundler and NJEA’s Barbara Keshishian and Vince Giordano made a deal, and local bargaining units will sign off on NJ’s Race To The Top application. (For the best news coverage, see NJ Spotlight and The Record.) Question #1: Will it help us win up to $400 million? Question #2: Does it matter?

#1: Iffy. While the final draft of the application hasn’t been released yet (though here’s the letter and plan), it appears that Comm. Schundler gambled that the benefits of NJEA buy-in – both short-term and long-term – were valuable enough to deliberately undermine the State’s application. For example, our original proposal states that when school districts are forced to lay off staff, decisions will be based “on evaluation data, not seniority.” However, according to NJEA Spokewoman Dawn Hiltner in The Record, “the commissioner backed off on that goal so seniority will continue to determine who keeps jobs.” The original application stated that “student learning must represent at least 51% of teacher and school leader evaluations.” The compromise document, according to NJ Spotlight, “calls for 50 percent of an educator’s evaluation to be decided by “multiple measures of student learning,” including test scores, according to the union.”

The DOE had proposed that awarding of tenure be extended from 3 years to 5 years and “require three years of ‘effective’ or better evaluations for a teacher to be granted tenure.” Instead, there will be no change to tenure laws. The original draft called for a “state bonus pool” that would directly reward effective teachers, with another portion allotted to school staff and programs. Now, says NJ Spotlight,
Half of the money would go only to school-wide bonuses, a union demand, while the other half would be distributed on a pilot basis to selected districts to use as they see fit, including the possibility of individual teacher bonuses. And even there, it would require at least half of a school’s staff to agree.
On the other hand, bonuses will still be awarded to effective teachers who agree to teach in chronically failing schools, and a major concession on the part of NJEA is that now a significant portion of teacher evaluations will be based on student growth.

So our application is weaker, and whether it will increase our odds of winning the federal competition is anyone’s guess. NJEA buy-in is big -- the lack of support from local units was clearly a factor for Round 1 evaluators – but Schundler’s concessions are big too. Example: feedback from the US DOE noted that our Round 2 application should “use evaluation results as a basis for tenure and Reductions in Force,” i.e., lay-offs. We're not doing that. Six of one, a dozen of the other?

On the other hand, there’s only 34 states and a ton of money left in the competition, since Round 1 garnered just two winners, Delaware and Tennessee, and states are dropping like flies. Schundler seems genuinely committed to President Obama’s educational agenda, and the new hiring of big-time eduwonk Andy Smarick as Deputy Commissioner only adds to the DOE’s new ed reform luster.

(Question of our own: if we lose RTTT, do the NJEA concessions still stand? Or are they solely dependent on a winning application?)

#2: The NJEA/DOE détente is big. After months of sideswipes and jibes, everyone’s tired of playing Hatfield and McCoy. Education reform is NJ necessitates at least a modicum of cooperation between the feuding sides and the RTTT treaty is a great step in that direction. Bravo.

Winning RTTT would be terrific too, but we’re guessing that this is not Schundler’s strategic pot of gold. He’s stated repeatedly that ed reform in NJ is coming, regardless of RTTT results. A weakened application – and it is, indeed, weakened (though, notably, it’s NJEA that’s running the press cycle, and not the DOE, perhaps by design) -- may be a cost that Schundler’s willing to pay for a public hug between warring factions. Much of the original RTTT application was predicated on Legislative cooperation , by no means a sure bet with NJEA’s hold over elected officials. Now NJ has a shot – with or without that $400 million – of making some badly needed reforms to our public school system.

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