NJ's Dueling Tenure Reform Proposals

As June wanes, the pressure on NJ legislators to pass some sort of tenure reform increases. How long have they been working on this? Years. But, as NJ Spotlight reports today, dueling bills threaten to forestall progress.

The first bill, thoroughly vetted by, well, just about everybody, is Senator Teresa Ruiz’s TEACHNJ bill (S 1455), would make teacher tenure conditional on classroom effectiveness and (depending on the version) end LIFO, or last in, first out when making lay-off decisions. It would also tie teacher evaluations to student outcomes and give principals more responsibility and authority.

(New Jersey School Boards Association supports the Ruiz bill. NJEA doesn't.)

The second bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, Chair of the Assembly Education Committee, isn’t even out there in final form (or any form for that matter), but it represents the greatest challenge to the possibility of tenure reform in NJ.

Diegnan’s bill is a weak ticket, and not just because he’s changed one of Ruiz’s teacher performance rankings from “partially proficient” to “approaching effective.” (When a bill treats teachers like young children, you know there’s a problem.)  Diegnan’s bill is, in fact, a toothless pander to an anachronistic culture with no patina of accountability and professionalism. His bill makes NJEA’s tenure proposal – which concedes that student outcomes, in some manner,  should inform teacher evaluations – look positively radical.  Diegnan makes NJEA look like Michelle Rhee.

Ruiz, Diegnan, and NJEA all add a fourth year before the granting of tenure. (Right now in NJ, and in most of the country, it’s 3 years and a day.) All three proposals attempt to streamline the tenure removal process. But, in yet another display of weakness, Diegnan’s bill capitulates to the myth that most school boards make tenure decisions based on nepotism.

Of course, there’s a few of those boards out there, but strong nepotism legislation and district policies (along with bad press) have made such incidents increasingly unlikely. Are there still corrupt school boards? Sure – Elizabeth, Perth Amboy, Trenton, and Hamilton come to mind – but the vast majority of NJ school boards act responsibly. Remember also that school board members don’t make their own recommendations regarding anything. All personnel recommendations come from the superintendent.

Bad cases make bad case law, goes the old wisdom. Should statewide policy be predicated on a few bad apples?

Diegnan says, “It has always been my position that tenure is important, and the cure would be much worse than the disease if we did away with tenure. We never want a situation where the change in the political leadership in a town would put everyone’s job at risk.”

The only way that could possibly happen is in a culture of non-accountability, where teacher evaluations are entirely disconnected from student outcomes, where principals and superintendents carry no responsibility for school and district performance, where nepotism reigns in school board decisions.  Not bloody likely.

Diegnan’s bill is so last century.

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