A ‘Win-Win’ for Students, Teachers and the Public

August 10, 2012
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By Barbara Keshishian

The new tenure reform law was signed Aug. 6 by Gov. Christie. We were happy to have been a part of the process that created this law, and it should go a long way to help us reach the goal of providing every child with the best teacher.

New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) is proud of the work we did in helping to write this landmark bill. NJEA made significant contributions to the final version of the law, which dramatically reduces the time and cost of teacher dismissal proceedings, while maintaining a strong fairness standard to guarantee teachers’ due process rights.

The evolution of this law is a blueprint for effective public policy. 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. That collaboration needs to continue as we move ahead to address other challenges facing our students and our public schools.

Precedent in 1998

This is not the first time NJEA has promoted legislation to make teacher dismissal proceedings more efficient. In 1998, NJEA supported a major change in the tenure law, sponsored by then-state Sen. Joseph Palaia, a Republican from Monmouth County, which cut the time in half to dismiss a teacher deemed to be ineffective.

Then, in December 2010, NJEA unveiled a tenure reform proposal that formed the basis of the new law, taking dismissal cases out of the courts and placing them before nationally certified arbitrators. Everyone agrees it shouldn’t take several years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to dismiss a teacher deemed to be ineffective, and thanks to this new law, that will never again be the case in New Jersey.

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We modeled our proposal after the law in Massachusetts, which moved teacher dismissal appeals from the courts to arbitrators 20 years ago. By all accounts, that decision proved to be enormously successful. Massachusetts ranks first in the nation in student achievement and New Jersey ranks second.

NJEA brought that proposal to the table, and we were pleased that stakeholders gave it serious consideration and ultimately, their support. It’s a smart way to go, because it addresses two key concerns: That it takes too long and costs too much to dismiss an ineffective teacher.

Fairness and due process

The new law maintains due process rights for teachers facing dismissal – a central value that enjoys broad public support. That’s important because no one wants a teacher or any other public school employee to be treated unfairly or to be fired for petty politics, nepotism or any other unjust reason. This law guarantees that any teacher who feels his or her dismissal is unfair or unjust has the right to appeal that dismissal to a certified arbitrator.

The difference is that under the new law, an arbitration hearing can be scheduled and concluded in a matter of a few months at most, and at a fraction of the cost of an extended court case. This is a win-win for our students, their teachers, and the public.

Next up: Evaluations

The next challenge is to ensure that the state’s new evaluation system – currently being piloted in a number of districts – is both fair and effective, since that evaluation system is what administrators will use to make key personnel decisions under the new tenure law.

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We were happy to work with Senator Teresa Ruiz, Assemblyman Pat Diegnan, Commissioner Chris Cerf and others on this tenure law, and now we need to focus on the evaluation process, since that will be the basis for any dismissal decisions. We look forward to working with the administration, the Legislature and other stakeholders to create an evaluation system that identifies the very best teaching, helps teachers who are struggling and allows for the fair dismissal of those who cannot improve their performance.

Every stakeholder in this lengthy and productive effort shared the same goal.  We all wanted to make sure we have the very best teachers in every New Jersey classroom. We should all be proud that we participated in a process that can help us achieve that goal.

Barbara Keshishian is president of the 195,000-member New Jersey Education Association.

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