New Jersey State Sen. M. Tersa Ruiz (D-Essex), head of the Senate Education Committee, has introduced legislation that would overhaul the state’s teacher tenure process.

The legislation would require annual teacher evaluations and evidence of student achievement growth to earn tenure. It would also make it easier to fire ineffective teachers.

The bill resembles reforms proposed by Republican Governor Chris Christie, which requires 50 percent of teacher evaluations be based on student achievement.

But Sen. Ruiz insisted, “It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from, as a union rep, from the principal’s association or a teacher, we’re all talking about what needs to get done to ensure we have great student outcomes.”

The legislation was introduced on February 6 and its first hearing before the Senate Education Committee was held on March 5.

There is broad consensus that the current teacher accountability system is broken. New Jersey earns an overall grade of D+ from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ).  “Ninety five percent of our teachers are being graded as proficient,” testified Newark Mayor Cory Booker, “but only 40 percent of students receive a similar grade.”

Most states, including New Jersey, base tenure on time served—typically three years—without considering student performance. Eight states require five years before a teacher can be tenured; while three states (Florida, Idaho, and Rhode Island) have effectively ended teacher tenure altogether, awarding only annual contracts to new teachers. (See p. 95)

The Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey (TeachNJ) Act, Senate Bill 1455  introduced by Sen. Ruiz, would rate teachers ineffective, partially effective, effective, and highly effective, based on multiple objective measures including student learning growth. Critics note that just 20 percent of subjects are currently tested, but under TeachNJ districts would develop their own assessments for those subjects.

It would take at least four years before a newly-hired teacher would be eligible for tenure under the bill. New teachers would complete a first-year mentorship program, and annual evaluations would begin at the end of their second year. They would need three consecutive effective or highly effective evaluations to be eligible for tenure.

After two years partially effective or ineffective ratings teachers could be fired, and they could not appeal their evaluation ratings.

TeachNJ supporters say that these changes will end the practice of LIFO, “last-in, first-out,” when layoffs are necessary, so staffing decisions would be based on teacher talent, not time served.

Exempting teachers tenured before the bill’s effective date in 2014 is drawing the most criticism from opponents and supporters alike.

Clashes between teachers unions and the Christie administration over tenure weakened New Jersey’s previous competitive grant application for federal Race to the Top funding, and it remains a point of contention with the TeachNJ bill.

“I think [the grandfather clause] was intended as a compromise,” said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, chief lobbyist for the New Jersey Education Association. “But it’s almost unworkable, where some employees work under one set of rules, and others under another.” TeachNJ supporters also object.

“It seems to me monumentally absurd to have a bill that…somehow forgives and forgets all the teachers who are there and only applies to new teachers in the profession,” Mayor Booker testified.

“It is no comfort to a parent of a child with a bad first grade teacher in front of them to know that five, ten or twenty years down the road, a new teacher will be there held to a different standard,” said  Jerry Cantrell, president of the Common Sense Institute of New Jersey. “Improving upon the bill by not grandfathering in teachers is the most important part.” Sen. Ruiz appears to agree.

“It was a huge issue to consider, and we just wanted something in place,” said Sen. Ruiz. “I heard from a lot of people urging that [the bill] apply retroactively. It is something I will take strongly under consideration.” She is currently considering amending the bill, and observers agree that the bill’s fate is in flux.

Yet supporters are cautiously optimistic. “This has been a long and arduous journey here in New Jersey,” said Cantrell. “So there is cause for hope and concern over this.”