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Lame Duck And The Education Reform Agenda [AUDIO]

Senate President Steve Sweeney
Senate President Steve Sweeney (D)

Governor Chris Christie says the lame duck session which officially starts tomorrow, is the time to advance his education agenda so a child’s zip code doesn’t dictate their academic destiny, but his proposals don’t have the full backing of State Senate President Steve Sweeney.

Christie’s education transformation task force released its preliminary report in September.

The Governor is proposing merit pay to reward good teachers, tenure reform to make it easier to fire bad ones and limits on educators’ seniority protections. The proposals must be approved by the legislature. Sweeney isn’t fully on board.

Referring to senior protection, Sweeney says, “To make the assumption that because somebody has been there 23 or 24 years that they’re not as energized or not as effective is a wrong assumption…..This isn’t like a corporation where when people get close to the brass ring you throw them aside. We value the people who work hard for our children.”

Sweeney is concerned that school administrators who are facing budget shortfalls will lay-off the teachers with the most experience because they’re paid more than those with less time on the job. He adds, “That teacher who has been a loyal employee and is close to retirement won’t be able to find a job anywhere, ever because of the legacy costs (pension and health benefits) that will go with that employee when they retire.”

“Tenure reform is extremely important,” says Sweeney. “What it’s going to look like, obviously the devil’s in the details…..seniority is absolutely, in my mind off the table.”

Sweeney supports merit pay for entire schools, not teachers. He explains, “With the individual rewarding of a teacher there’s so much politics that can play into it.”

Even though Steve Sweeney has been vocal saying he doesn’t like a lot of Christie’s proposed education reforms, the Governor is expressing optimism about finding common ground.

During last month’s Ask the Governor program, Christie said “we’ve got to see- when we really sit down to talk – what the objections are and if he can maybe convince me that I’m looking at this wrong or I can convince him that he’s looking at this wrong and the same thing with Speaker Oliver.”

The Governor said what many people may not understand is “lots of stuff is said publicly by politicians for lots of different reasons- sometimes because it’s absolutely the way they feel sometimes because they have to appeal to a certain constituency – sometimes because it’s election time and you talk different then at times some politicians do than they do at other times and sometimes because they say different things publicly than they do privately – what I’ve learned in this job is I don’t give up on anything until I try really hard publicly and privately.”

Christie added to this point he’s been laying the groundwork for education reform, and “there’s some areas that we all seem to agree on, that we’re going to try to get done, and the areas that we don’t agree on – I’m going to try to convince them that I’m right and they’re going to try to convince me and we’ll see where we go…I’m optimistic about it, I think we can get a lot of things done – but will I get everything I want? Of course not, I never get everything I want.”

In April the Governor sent a seven-bill package of education proposals to the state legislature.

“These reforms will reward great teachers through better pay and career paths, allow us to identify the struggling teachers and get them the help they need, and put in place a multiple measured evaluation system that will provide an avenue to remove the bad teachers who are not getting results in the classroom” Christie said.

Specifically, the group of seven bills submitted to the legislature by Governor Christie calls for:

Implementation of a multiple measured statewide evaluation system by the 2012-2013 school year that requires observation and evaluation of all educators at least twice per year with summative evaluation at the end of the school year using the rating categories of highly effective, effective, partially effective, or ineffective.

Tenure attainment with recommendations for tenure eligibility only after four years of service and after ratings of “effective” or “highly effective” have been received for the proceeding three years with guidelines for lesser ratings. Tenure status is lost after an evaluation as ineffective for one year or partially effective for two years.

Reforming laws governing reductions in force (“Last In, First Out”) so that any layoffs are based on effectiveness — not seniority — and determined by an evaluation system established by the Commissioner of Education.

Mutual consent that calls for agreement by both the principal and teacher on all teacher assignments to schools. Where a principal does not consent to a tenured teacher’s placement in his or her school, that teacher will continue to receive compensation for 12 months while searching for an assignment in the district, after which he or she will be placed on unpaid leave.

Reforming teacher compensation to focus on an educator’s demonstrated effectiveness in advancing student learning, as well as whether the educator is teaching in a failing school or is teaching in a subject area that has been identified as a difficult-to-staff subject area.

Due process changes to eliminate a provision requiring a teacher against whom tenure charges were filed to begin receiving full salary and benefits after 120 days of start of the process as well as implementing a firm deadline requiring Administrative Law Judges hearing tenure revocation cases to render a decision within 30 days.

Allow for school districts to opt out of the Civil Service System.

Two of the cornerstones of Christie plans are merit pay for teachers and the elimination of seniority protections. State Senate President Steve Sweeney objects to both proposals and say he won’t post either for a vote.

“I’ve never been a fan of merit pay. I don’t believe in it,” said Sweeney last month. “Sometime when you have merit pay, you have the ability to have favorites. A real hard teacher gets less money than another teacher because he or she is not the favorite.”

Sweeney and other critics say seniority protections are needed to protect older teachers from being laid off in order to save districts money on retirement costs.

Christie says, “We’ve seen pronouncements by me and by him about things we would or wouldn’t do and then when you get into negotiations you realize if you want to get something done maybe you’ve got to change a little bit.”

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