TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey’s largest teachers union on Tuesday announced a plan of its own to make it quicker for schools to fire bad teachers in a response to Gov. Chris Christie’s constant refrain that the group is a roadblock to improving education.
The New Jersey Education Association says the process should be moved from administrative law courts to arbitrators, who would have strict deadlines for coming up with final rulings.
Christie, a Republican, has spent much of his first year in office bashing NJEA officials as bullies concerned more about their own pocketbooks than the state of public education. He’s been furious because most local educators’ unions balked at his request that they agree to salary freezes, and about one facetious “prayer” from a union official suggesting that it’s time for the governor to die. And he’s tried to portray the idea of tenure as a preposterous one.
On Thursday, a state Senate committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the topic.
The union presented the idea as part of a news conference announcing several initiatives to try to reform the state’s public school system—and to try to counter some of the governor’s unrelenting criticism. The governor has called for the state to use tax credits for businesses that offer scholarships that would let students in struggling districts attend private schools, and for teachers to be paid in part according to how much their students improve on standardized tests.
While many of the state’s urban districts perform poorly, the school system on average is among the best in the country by several measures. Even there, the costs are a problem, Christie says.
“Our reforms take the view that professional educators should be involved in the development of reforms, which should be obvious,” said NJEA President Barbara Keshishian. “Too many so-called reforms are based on politics and sound bites—and not on sound research and proven practice. We need to change that dynamic.”
Lawmakers and school officials are concerned about how difficult it is now to oust underperforming teachers.
Christie wants to strip many of the protections afforded by tenure. Public school teachers now are granted tenure after completing three successful years on the job.
Christie often says tenure amounts to lifetime job protections. NJEA officials say tenure doesn’t guarantee jobs for life, and that the three-year wait amounts to a longer probationary period than most union workers have.
Keshishian said Tuesday that her group’s proposal would take care of the problem, but would make the process fair.
She said the process now takes around nine months on average, and defending each case costs the union about $25,000. She said her proposal would shorten the time it takes to fire an educator to about two or three months.
Tenure action comes into play rarely. In 2008, there were 35 education tenure cases for school employees in New Jersey—or about one for every 6,600 employees. State education officials said they had not compiled data on the disposition of those cases, including how many school employees were ultimately fired.
Keshishian’s other proposed changes include continuing to do some of the things the association already does—like running workshops for educators through its Center of Teaching and Learning and offering mentoring programs for teachers.
It also wants to give educators a say on more issues, including class size, through collective bargaining; to increase funding for a scholarship program designed to keep top high school graduates in New Jersey; and bringing full-day kindergarten to districts statewide.
While Christie isn’t exactly ready to endorse many of the recommendations, he is taking credit for pushing the group toward action.
“In the year leading up to my governorship, I didn’t see the teachers’ union coming up and proposing any kind of reforms for tenure, any kind of reforms for teacher evaluation. The fact of the matter is you have to be honest and direct and straightforward and sometimes tough in order to force people to look at themselves,” he said. “And so I’m hopeful this will be the first step.”
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