"By far, this is the most gratifying day of my governorship."

That's NJ Gov. Chris Christie quoted in today's NJ Spotlight piece on the Newark teachers' contract, just approved by a slim majority of the Newark Teachers Union. Most notably, the contract includes a merit pay provision that will offer 3%-5% raises to teachers who demonstrate excellence in the classroom. The raises are financed by a $50 million grant from Facebook (although a large chunk of the money will go towards retroactive pay to Newark's teachers who have been paid under their old contract for two years).

As Spotlight points out, Gov. Christie's elated reaction to the incorporation of a merit pay clause into a NJ public school contract is as much a celebration as a recalibration of expectations. Passage of the "voucher bill" (the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would offer poor kids corporate-sponsored scholarships to private or parochial schools)? Not likely, despite its omnipresence on the Christie administration education reform wish-list. Rewriting of charter school laws? Also a long shot, given the active hostility of suburbanites towards charter school expansion in functional school districts. Elimination of seniority-based lay-offs? Close but yet so far. While Sen. Teresa Ruiz's tenure reform bill x-ed out LIFO, a last-minute compromise with teacher unions reinstated that practice into the legislation.

(Of course, the Ruiz bill still streamlines retraction of lifetime job security and makes tenure conditional on continued classroom effectiveness. Full implementation is slated for school year 2103-2014, but there's still tons of kinks to work out. These include getting NJ's 591 individual districts up to speed with professional development so that administrators can properly evaluate staff members on a portfolio of benchmarks, upgrading  district data systems in order to link student growth to individual teachers, transitioning a system of Student Growth Percentiles orchestrated by the NJ DOE. Add your own pet kinks.)

Worth noting, also, is that Newark's teacher union, NTU, is a branch of Randi Weingarten's AFT, and Weingarten has actively urged NTU to take the plunge. Every other public district in NJ is part of NJEA, whose leadership remains opposed to the merit pay clause that NTU members approved. Here's NJEA Spokesman Steve Wollmer: “I don’t think that contract would get the approval of most of the locals that NJEA represents — or any of them, for that matter.

Certainly, Gov. Christie is right to celebrate the Newark contract. But it's a fringe development, and consistent with his Administration's  lowering of expectations.  Relatively tiny NTU's willingness to explore ways to increase the professionalism of its teaching staff and reward great teachers  is an aberration, not an indication of a NJ trend. The stakes on its success, then, are really high. If Newark can make it work, then NJEA's members just might start wondering if merit pay is a road worth traveling.

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