TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Lawmakers and education advocates came to a remarkable compromise in forging an overhaul of tenure laws to make it easier for public schools to oust ineffective educators. But building a consensus meant dropping a change that most other states have already made: Making teachers' effectiveness a factor in determining which lose their jobs in case of layoffs.
GOP Gov. Chris Christie, who opposes using seniority to determine layoffs, is still deciding whether he's willing to accept the compromise.
If he vetoes the bill, he'll undo a deal among a unanimous Legislature and groups who don't often agree on the details of improving schools.
If he signs it, he'll have to sacrifice — for now, at least — something that's been a core principle in his beliefs about school reform and leave New Jersey as one of only 11 states with a last-in, first-out policy for educators in the face of layoffs.
"The question is: Are there enough good things in there for me to sign it?" Christie said at a town hall meeting last week. "And I've got to make that decision."
He has until Aug. 3 to sign, veto, or conditionally veto the bill.
Even without getting rid of the seniority protections, the law would represent major changes to a century-old tenure system that practically everyone found fault with in some way.
Currently, New Jersey public school teachers are granted tenure after three years on the job. Under the bill, it would take four years, including high marks on more rigorous evaluations.
"What a piece of legislation like this is really meant to do is change culture," said Derrell Bradford, executive director of the policy arm of the group Better Education for New Jersey Kids. "We're asking teachers and leaders to focus on something more concrete, which is student achievement, to figure out whether or not they will be rewarded with tenure."
Under the proposed changes, teachers who have bad marks two years in a row would be given 90 days to improve. If they don't, their districts would initiate tenure charges and fire them. Cases where the teachers dispute the firings would be heard by arbitrators who would have 105 days to make their rulings as opposed to administrative law judges whose decisions can take months. The first educators ousted under the bill would not lose their jobs until sometime in 2015.
The bill was pieced together by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, a Newark Democrat who believes seniority should not decide who faces layoffs, and Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, a Democrat from South Plainfield who favors keeping seniority.
Lawmakers and education interests have given the lawmakers enormous credit for hearing out all of their concerns.
The two unions that represent nearly all the state's public-school educators have endorsed the plan, as have reform groups that see teachers unions as obstacles and associations representing school boards, superintendents and principals.
Most of the groups that signed on did it with some caveats.
For New Jersey Education Association spokesman Steve Wollmer, the problem is that the tenure decisions are to be based on a new evaluation system that's still being tested. "It's a bit of a leap of faith here because we've built this brand-new house called 'tenure reform,' but we've put it on a foundation that hasn't been poured yet," he said.
For the New Jersey School Boards Association's Frank Belluscio, it's just a step — not the renewable tenure contracts his group has pushed for decades. "This is all well and good in the context of the current lifetime system of tenure," he said.
If it works as intended, the changes would make the process of ousting underperforming teachers faster and less costly.
That's something that the unions want just as much as school districts.
It's teachers and their representatives who sound most enthusiastic about the bill. "This bill is not much different than the way the system is supposed to work," Stephanie Tarr, a history teacher at Cedar Creek High School in Egg Harbor City and activist NJEA member, said in an email. "Make no mistake: teachers, and their unions, know who the bad teachers are."
But leaders of both the NJEA and the American Federation of Teachers said they were not going to endorse a bill that stripped seniority when it came to layoffs.
It was one of the last major changes Ruiz made before she unveiled her bill in mid-June.
But the seniority issue remains a major concern, particularly for Christie, who has become a nationally prominent voice on education reform.
He says that when districts lay off educators, they should keep the best ones, not just the most experienced ones.
Christie, like many education experts, says the quality of teaching makes a huge difference in how students perform. And he doesn't believe lesser teachers should keep their jobs if better ones are laid off.
But to unions, preserving seniority is a key to the deal.
Get rid of it, said Donna Chiera, president of the state branch of the American Federation of Teachers, and layoffs would be made for other reasons. "It opens the door to a lot of inequities: You're young, enthusiastic, cheaper, you're the right nationality," she said. "Seniority right now is a matter of fairness."
She said she would be willing to accept a merit-based system if she knew schools had an evaluation system that would objectively sort out effective and ineffective teachers.
Until the last few years, the debate in New Jersey about how teacher layoffs should be carried out was largely theoretical. "Typically, education is a growth field," said Nat Bender, a state spokesman for the AFT.
But tough times economically — along with a new state law capping property tax increases — have put school districts in budget crunches. In 2010 and 2011, layoffs were widespread.
And there are expected to be more in years to come, particularly in Newark and other urban districts where students are leaving traditional public schools to attend charter schools, leaving behind more teachers than are needed.