8-7-12 Education & Related Issues in the News

NJ Spotlight - Compromise, Caffeine, and Trade-Offs: Behind NJ's New Tenure Reform Bill…Weeks of marathon meetings bring Sen. Ruiz, key players, and Christie to celebratory signing

By John Mooney, August 7, 2012 in Education|Post a Comment

With the signing yesterday of New Jersey’s new teacher tenure law, there was the expected fanfare about the stakeholders and bipartisan efforts that went into crafting the final bill.

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Less attention was given to the two weeks of marathon meetings in early June that finally turned the legislation, the break coming when the governor relented on an issue that was once almost non-negotiable.

A half-dozen key players led by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the main crafter of the bill, met for hours at a time in a handful of locations to work out the details, according to several of those who attended.

Among those in the rooms were state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, the top leadership for the New Jersey Education Association, and state Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex), the driving force in the Assembly.

Just a week before the bill came to final vote in the Senate, Ruiz and Cerf even squeezed in a closed-door meeting at the Liberty Science Center after a special State Board of Education session held at the Jersey City museum.

"We lived on coffee dispensed from a vending machine," Ruiz said yesterday of that meeting.

Ultimately, it was Gov. Chris Christie stepping back -- at least for now -- on an issue that was once a no-trespass line: his insistence on ending seniority rights for teachers in the case of layoffs.

“That was very near the end of the process, not a single moment, but suddenly it didn’t appear so much in the conversations any more,” said Vincent Giordano, the executive director of the New Jersey Education Association and one of the regulars at the table.

“When that issue started slowly fading away, without question, that helped smooth out other hurdles in the road,” he said. “That’s what bargaining is all about.”

Indeed, Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of NJ (TEACH-NJ) ended up the product of lots of bargaining, a big theme yesterday as Christie and virtually all of the other players gathered for the signing in the library of a Middlesex Township middle school.

Alongside Christie and Ruiz at the lectern were Cerf, state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), representing the Democratic leadership, and state Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Essex) for the Republicans.

But that was just the start. In the audience was the leadership of several major school associations, including Giordano and a strong showing of other officers and executives of the NJEA. Also invited were the state’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, and the Garden State Coalition of Schools, the group representing mostly suburban districts.

Also present were the special-interest groups that have grown to prominence around this issue, including the New Jersey leaders of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and Better Education for Kids (B4K), two pro-reform organizations that had been integral in the tenure bill’s push and both publicly thanked by Christie.

In one notable seating arrangement, the outspoken executive director of the B4K, Derrell Bradford, even sat between the presidents of the NJEA and the state AFT.

Relations among the various groups and individuals have not always been warm -- though they have been heated at times -- especially between Christie and the NJEA, with each hurling insults for the past two years over a range of issues.

When it came to the tenure bill and all it represented, the hot spot was often seniority. This issue led to one of the first breaches back in 2010, when Christie rejected a compromise over seniority that had been struck by the NJEA and his former commissioner, Bret Schundler, in the first application for federal Race to the Top money.

Schundler ultimately was fired by Christie over another transgression in the doomed federal application, and Christie yesterday said the seniority issue was well down the list of disagreements he had with Schundler.

Nonetheless, Christie said it was something he ultimately compromised on to help the tenure bill proceed. He, too, said it was about trade-offs, and the bill’s direct link between a teacher’s tenure rights and positive evaluations was worth the give and take.

Starting in 2013-2014, teachers will need four years to get tenure and must have consistently positive evaluations to keep it. Conversely, two consecutive negative ratings will allow districts to begin dismissal proceedings.

“I never thought I would get everything I wanted,” Christie said. “And there comes a point when you need to make a decision as a leader that what you are getting is enough to make a difference.”

“The fact is, I still believe that [seniority] is a serious issue that we need to have more public discussion on,” he said. “But ultimately, my decision was there was enough really good things in this bill that I was not going to allow it not to become law because it didn’t have everything I wanted.”

What happens next, Christie said there would be new proposals to try again to end the rights known as “last in first out,” or LIFO.

Almost on cue, state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) put out a press release yesterday in which he pledged new legislation to end LIFO, as well as press again for merit pay and new rules for teacher placements, other measures that didn’t survive the final bill. Kyrillos, who is the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, filed Christie’s first tenure reform bill.

“Let today’s accomplishment motivate this legislature to modify all tenure laws that protect failing educators and excessive public education costs,” Kyrillos said in a statement.

Cerf made a plug for it, too. He called the current LIFO law that gives preference to a teacher with a single day more in seniority, regardless of overall effectiveness, “indefensible from a moral or any other perspective.”

Later, he said it was not a matter of Christie bending on the issue. “That's not bending; that's timing and tactics,” Cerf said in an email.

Still, Ruiz yesterday made little or no mention at all about seniority or LIFO, instead listing a half-dozen other education issues she wants to tackle. And even Christie didn’t press too hard when asked for specifics.

“I imagine I’ll make lots of proposals in the next year,” he said.

In the end, Ruiz said she herself was never sure the final bill would come to fruition, let alone be signed with unanimous support from both Democrats and Republicans.

“I was told when I first asked staff to explore the subject matter that it was political suicide, and that I didn’t know anything about public education,” she said. “The emails and phone calls came in, and it was a moment where it was easy to give up.”

“But you sit back and realize that you can’t just not to do anything,” Ruiz said. “The truth is this was never about giving anyone a tool to get rid of low-performing teachers. It wasn’t about headlines or setting an agenda on a national level."

“It was about what I thought was right and what we know, that the teacher has the greatest impact on our children and what happens in the classroom.”

Star Ledger- Gov. Christie hails signing of tenure reform bill as 'a great day for good teachers'

Updated: Tuesday, August 07, 2012, 8:20 AM

By Jarrett Renshaw/Statehouse BureauThe Star-Ledger

MIDDLESEX BOROUGH — After some two years of bitter public clashes, Gov. Christie on Monday set aside his differences with the state’s teachers unions and signed a bill making it easier for school districts to weed out underperforming teachers while preserving job security for the most senior educators.

The Republican governor hailed the achievement as a symbol of not only sound policy, but of bipartisanship and compromise

"It’s a great day for good teachers," Christie proclaimed at a signing ceremony, which took place at the Von E. Mauger Middle School in Middlesex County.

And although they did not join him during the ceremony, among those present were two officials from the New Jersey Education Association with whom those governor has battled over changes to the public education system — the president, Barbara Keshishian, and the executive director, Vince Giordano.

Under the terms of the new law passed in June, teachers will have to wait at least four years instead of three — and they will have to earn consistently good grades — to gain tenure. Conversely, they can face firing if they repeatedly receive poor evaluations.

Seniority will still have its privileges under the law. New Jersey continues to be one of only 11 states with a last-in, first-out policy for teachers in the event of layoffs.

Christie opposes seniority rules and once vowed he wouldn’t sign a tenure reform bill that failed to eliminate the rule, but he relented as part of compromise proposal that gained the support of his arch rival, the state’s teachers’ union.

"I never thought I was going to get all that I wanted," Christie said. "They question you have to ask yourself is there enough to make a difference? And, if so, then you support it."

State Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said the state should celebrate tenure reform, but cautioned that much needs to be done because the state’s seniority rules are "morally indefensible" because they protect bad teachers.

Tenure reform took nearly two years to accomplish, and it represents one of the few achievements for Christie in the area of education, which he pledged to reform with little success last year. He said that lateer this week he expected to sign into law a measure that will reorganize portions of the state’s higher education system.

"The evolution of this law is a blueprint for effective public policy," Keshishian said. "Every key stakeholder — principals and supervisors, school boards, legislators, the state Department of Education, and NJEA — worked hard to bring it over the finish line."

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the prime sponsor of contentious measure, has been largely credited with moving it through the Legislature.

"There were times I was told this was political suicide, and it was easy to give up," Ruiz said. "But we can’t sit back and do nothing."

She thanked Christie for his support, saying, "You can be Bruce Springsteen and I can be Lady Gaga."

The achievement was embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike.

State Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Bergen), said the "landmark achievement of bipartisanship was made possible in large part by Gov. Christie’s fierce leadership and sponsor Senator Ruiz helping to propel students’ needs in front of special political interests."

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said the signing was historic, reforming a system that went unchanged for 100 years.

"We can’t have the bad ones in the schools anymore," Sweeney said. "One bad teacher is one bad teacher too many.

Christie acknowledged several of his education reforms have yet to get through the Legislature, but that tenure reform proved anything is possible.

He said he’s just one part of the puzzle, and the measures need the support of the Legislature to succeed. "If it were a dictatorship," he said, "we would have it done last year."

The Record - Gov. Christie signs teacher tenure overhaul bill


MIDDLESEX – Governor Christie signed a landmark tenure reform bill into law Monday, saying there’s still more work to be done to improve education in the state.

 “It’s a great day, a great day for all of us, a great day for the people who dedicate their lives to education everyday and a great day for good teachers because good teachers will do very well under this system,” Christie said. “Every good teacher in a classroom is a treasure for the parents who send their children there and the children who go there to learn.”

Christie praised lawmakers, who unanimously passed the bill known as the Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for Children of New Jersey Act, and unions and outside policy groups who worked with the administration and legislators to pass the reforms for the first time in 100 years.

The law, which he signed after meeting with children in a summer program at Von E. Mauger Middle School in Middlesex Borough Monday, changes the teacher evaluation process making it more difficult for teachers to attain tenure and easier for schools to get rid of underperforming educators.

But Christie said there is still work to be done, including changing the provision that the last teachers hired have to be the first let go, regardless of their ability, if there are staff reductions.

“It never happens as quickly as I would like, it’s never as inclusive I would like, but on the other hand this is progress,” Christie said after signing the bill.

He added to the list of things that have been accomplished with bipartisan support including capping local property tax increases, reforming pensions and benefits payments and restructuring higher education, a bill he has yet to sign but said he plans to in the next week or two.

Education Commissioner Chris Cerf praised the law, but also said that the “last in, first out” provision must be addressed.

“Lets celebrate this moment together but lets not pretend the work is done,” Cerf said.

But Christie may have a harder time getting everyone to agree to weaken the seniority protections.

New Jersey Education Association President Barbara Keshishian, a New Milford math teacher, said union officials are willing to discuss additional changes, but not the critical measure Christie wants.

“We certainly did discuss last in, first out and we indicated that we were not interested in changing the current seniority regulations,” she said.

Keshishian sat in the front row and was one of about a dozen union members in attendance for the bill signing.

Christie has had a contentious relationship with NJEA, which Keshisian said has traditionally worked well with governors from both parties.

She said she shook the governor’s hand, for what was likely the first time, Monday.

“I would hope that this would be a step in the right direction,” she said. “We certainly don’t want to have a battle of words. What we want to be able to do is continue to work cooperatively on issues that involve our public schools and public education in the state of New Jersey.”

Better Education for Kids, a policy group started by two hedge fund financiers who want to improve education in the state, said the law modernizes an antiquated teacher evaluation system.

“Education reform of this magnitude could never have occurred without certain key supporters determined to overcome strong resistance,” said David Tepper, one of the groups founders. “We are really proud to have had a role in building a bridge between the different sides.”

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, the primary sponsor of the bill said she was warned that taking on tenure reform was “political suicide” but she knew it was an issue that needed to be addressed to ensure a quality education for children.

“Teaching is the one profession that creates all other professions and we must be committed to that, because by doing so we are committed to all of our children,” she said.

Email: hayes@northjersey.com


NJ Spotlight - Should School Lunch Enrollment Determine State Aid?...With first public hearing set, Education Task Force begins study of NJ’s school funding formula

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By John Mooney, August 7, 2012 in Education|4 Comments

It’s been quiet since they were first appointed, but Gov. Chris Christie’s Education Funding Task Force will make its first public appearance with a hearing next week in Fort Lee.

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The seven-member task force was created by executive order in March in the aftermath of Christie’s state budget proposal for fiscal 2013 with the task of studying the state’s school funding formula.

It specifically was charged with studying how the state measures poverty as part of the formula by districts’ and schools’ enrollment of children in federal subsidized lunch programs.

It is a critical -- and controversial -- topic given the heavier weight in funding for children from low-income families. It became especially charged last winter with allegations that officials and employees of the Elizabeth City school board had wrongfully enrolled their children in the lunch programs. A State Auditor report last year also cited issues of over-enrollment, where a third of enrolled students in 10 sampled districts were found to be ineligible.

But advocates contended that the lunch program, by and large, is under-utilized in New Jersey, with the state ranking at the very bottom nationally in terms of enrollment. Through his task force, critics contended that Christie was only seeking to scale back funding to urban districts.

The topic came up in state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s Senate confirmation hearing last month, where he called the lunch program a poor measure in general but conceded there may be different cases where it both underestimates and overestimates poverty.

“They are inaccurate in both directions,” he said of the numbers.

Still, Cerf added the stakes are real in terms of state aid to schools: “There are not tens of millions but hundreds of millions of dollars affected by this.”

The public will get its say next week on Wednesday, August 15, as the task force meets at Fort Lee High School at 3 p.m. The school’s address is 3000 Lemoine Ave., Fort Lee.

Members of the public are asked to bring printed copies of their remarks. An additional hearing will be held in the southern part of the state at a later date.

The seven members are the following:

·         Rochelle Hendricks (chair), state Secretary of Higher Education

·         Jerry W. Cantrell, president, Common Sense Institute of New Jersey

·         Anna Lugo DeMolli, former Paterson early childhood director

·         Steven Engravalle, Fort Lee interim schools superintendent

·         John P. Inglesino, Morris County attorney

·         Rev. Edwin D. Leahy, headmaster, St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark

·         Charles Urban; former Absecon City councilmember

Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly reported the date of the hearing. It will be held on Wednesday, August 15.

The Record –Column - Christie praises the NJEA, his favorite punching bag

Posted on   by Charles Stile

The formal signing of the teacher tenure reform law on Monday marked a historic occasion.

It was the first time that Governor Christie actually praised the leadership of the New Jersey Education Association, the powerful teacher’s union.

Yes, that’s right, he praised the same leaders who he once dubbed as “thugs” and union bullies who would do anything to protect their salaries and seniority – including rounding up students as “drug mules” to peddle their propaganda.

And not only did he lavish praise on the union, but he did so as the NJEA’s top brass sat in audience inside a stuffy middle-school classroom in Central Jersey.

“The fact of the matter is, this was not going to get done without their input, their support and their help,’’ Christie said of the NJEA, lumping them in also with leaders of the New Jersey School Boards Association and the American Federation of Teachers, a smaller teacher’s union.

It was only six months ago that Christie vilified NJEA Executive Director Vince Giordano as a callous $500,000-a-year-union boss and called for his resignation. The state GOP sent out video stalkers to track his every move. Now Giordano was in the audience chuckling at Christie’s self-deprecating asides.

What’s going on here? Has Christie, who had to be pulled away from a pro-teacher heckler last month while clutching an ice-cream cone, become Mr. Softie on the NJEA?

Not entirely, says Christie. Both sides struck an unofficial and pragmatic truce as the Democratic-controlled legislature steered the reform measure toward compromise.

“So, from my perspective, yeah, there have been lots of words exchanged,’’ said Christie, a reference to the NJEA’s $6 million ad campaign that attacking him. “But I thanked them today because they were willing, as I was, to put that aside in order to get something productive done for the people of this state on a subject that we both care passionately about.”

Still, this tone and approach represents an about-face by Christie. But why now after three years of zealously slamming the union as selfish guardians of the status quo? Several reasons.

First, as he acknowledged, there was no way that any form of tenure reform was going to fly past the Democratic-controlled legislature without the union’s involvement.

As much as Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney has also clashed with the NJEA and other public employee unions over pension and health benefit rollbacks last year, the NJEA remains a powerful Democratic Party constituency. In a time of shrinking campaign dollars, Democrats will become even more dependent on their support in next year’s legislative elections.

So, it was in Sweeney’s interest to let them have a seat at the bargaining table. And it was in Christie’s interest to bite his tongue and let that happen if there was any chance of a tenure law reaching his desk.

Secondly, assuming Christie doesn’t become Mitt Romney’s pick for vice president or doesn’t jump ship to a Romney-elect administration, then Christie will likely run for a second term. Governors who have rankled powerful constituencies in their first term tend to take early steps at repairing relations as the reelection race looms.

This doesn’t mean Christie is angling for a NJEA endorsement. No one expects the NJEA to suddenly support the most aggressively antagonistic governor they ever faced. “That would be a pretty big mountain to climb,’’ Giordano said.

Christie’s best hope is that his switch to diplomacy might tamp down some of the anger that rank-and-file teachers. They don’t like or trust him, but if he continues on this course of compromise over the next six to eight months, maybe teachers won’t work so hard to defeat him.

As evidence of this tactic, Christie also seemed to go out of his way Monday to praise “good” teachers and public education, stressing his own years grooming in the Livingston public school system, and how much he wants to insure that every student is afforded the same experience.

Whether Christie can lower the “intensity” (rank-and-file anger) remains a question mark. Certainly, says Giordano, having an “open, honest dialogue” on other contentious education issues – establishing a teacher evaluation system that is at the heart of the tenure bill – will certainly help. But his old style of “lobbing hand grenades under the tent” won’t, he said.

During a news conference, Christie also steered away from two other issues that infuriate public employees and teachers. Asked if he would continue pursue a separate plan to diminish the role of seniority during layoffs – an idea Christie championed in the tenure bill but was forced to drop – Christie demurred.

When a reporter gave him a chance to tee off on sick-leave reform, Christie only stated his “principled” opposition to the bill, and said if his recommended reforms don’t fly in the Legislature, so be it.

And finally, Christie may be looking ahead to 2016, when he would be among the top Republican prospects should Romney lose in November. Christie knows that the only way he can achieve any accomplishments as a second-term lame duck is to compromise with the Democratic legislature.

He might keep his job approval numbers high by bashing the “Corzine Democrats” but he stands little chance of notching the legislative accomplishments he will need for a White House run. Nor will he get anywhere bashing one of the Democrats’ historic allies.