The full New Jersey Senate unanimously approved "historic tenure reform legislation" during Thursday evening's voting session in Trenton. The measure received high praise from both sides of the aisle.

Senator M. Teresa Ruiz (D) sponsored the plan that overhauls New Jersey's century-old tenure law for teachers. Teaching staff members who are hired on or after the effective date would become eligible for tenure after four years of employment in the district. However, tenure would only be an option for teachers who rate as "effective" or "highly effective" in two of their first three years on the job. Under current law, one without an evaluation process, teachers earn tenure after three years of employment.

Under the bill, a teacher evaluation process would be adopted district-by-district, and the evaluations would be conducted by a school improvement panel. The "evaluation rubrics" would go through a pilot phase and be implemented in the 2013-2014 school year. Teaching staff members' performances would be rated as "ineffective," "partially effective," "effective," or "highly effective."

"With this bill, we will create fundamental change that ensures our students have the best leaders in the classroom. It is policy based on the foundation that no matter a child’s background, ZIP code or socio-economic status, all students deserve equal access to an excellent education," Ruiz said.

Under the bill, each first-year teacher would go through a mentoring program with an effective experienced employee.

The legislation would make it easier for teachers and other staff members to lose their tenure. Two consecutive poor ratings could subject them to discipline, including dismissal. Ruiz's original bill kept tenure hearings in the courtroom, but the revised measure puts them before an arbitrator.

Senate President Steve Sweeney called Ruiz's policy "one of the most significant pieces of legislation" he's been involved with since the start of his legislative career.

Ruiz was congratulated by Republicans as well, but they also indicated the legislation doesn't go far enough.

"Every journey starts with a first step, and this is a first step," said Republican state Senator Robert Singer.

Republican Governor Chris Christie has been vocal with his own ideas for education reform, including merit pay for teachers and the elimination of their seniority protections.

Seniority rights during layoffs were eliminated in Ruiz's original bill, but that provision was removed to reflect the bill's current version. That was one of several changes made, following extensive discussions and negotiations with the New Jersey Education Association.

The NJEA recently testified in support of Ruiz's legislation and a version in the Assembly, sponsored by Patrick Diegnan (D). After Thursday's vote in the Senate, Diegnan indicated that minor, technical changes would be made to the legislation. The measure is to be voted out of the Assembly Budget Committee today, and should be approved by both houses Monday.