I thought having an up-close view of a historical legislative moment would be a bit more thrilling. It is historic having a tenure reform bill pass the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee with bipartisan support. Passing any tenure reform bill is historic and although many did not like some of the compromises that were eventually struck (including NJSBA), almost all the education groups ultimately supported the measure, including the NJEA. Yet I found myself less than enthused.
Maybe it was because the meeting started three hours late and everyone there had to endure another couple of hours of discussion on other matters before the focus shifted to S-1455 TEACHNJ, the tenure reform legislation sponsored by Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D- Essex County). Or maybe it was because, while this passage was a major step in tenure reform, it was not the final step.
Yet even while I was feeling a bit bored, my mind was churning with questions. The Republican senators all joined in voting yes on this measure and praising Sen. Ruiz, which most observers took as a signal that Gov. Christie would support this legislation. The bill seems a shoo-in to pass the Senate but what about the Assembly? There are less than ten days to get an Assembly companion bill passed.
While at that moment, I believed strongly that the amended Ruiz bill was the bill that would be enacted, I also knew that it was not a sure thing. There is another, different tenure reform bill sponsored by Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, and it has been approved by the Assembly Education Committee. I should note that the Republican members of the Assembly Ed. Committee abstained on voting on the Diegnan bill, so it seems that it may not have the governor’s support.
The two bills have some similarities. They both add a year to the process of obtaining tenure (four years instead of the current three), and both send tenure disputes to binding arbitration. There are important differences, however. Sen. Ruiz’s bill, for example, ties teacher evaluations and the awarding of tenure more closely to measures of student achievement than does the Diegnan bill.
There have also been compromises, some significant, along the legislative path. For example, many supporters of tenure reform were upset that the elimination of LIFO (last in first out), the seniority system used when reducing staff, was not included in this latest version of the Ruiz bill. Reform advocates oppose LIFO because it makes length of employment, rather than teacher performance, the criterion on which to base lay-offs. As a result, a district could be forced to keep a teacher with more years of experience while getting rid of a newer, better teacher. NJSBA was one of the groups that expressed disappointment that this reform was eliminated from the Ruiz bill.
Not only are there policy differences that need to be ironed out between the Democrats in the Senate and the Assembly, but there are political differences, too. There is a strong faction of Assembly Democrats who are not inclined to compromise with the governor by supporting the current version of the Ruiz bill. The Diegnan bill, A-3060, has 11 sponsors and co-sponsors, indicating strong support within the Democratic caucus. There may a willingness among Assembly Democrats to work toward a compromise between the current version of the Ruiz and Diegnan bills, but there is little time to do so before summer recess. While Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver could take an alternate strategy by moving the Assembly companion to Ruiz’s bill (not the Diegnan bill) toward a vote by directing it from Assembly Ed. to another committee, she might find herself dependent on Republican support—and without the support of a significant portion of her own caucus. Remember last year at this time? Speaker Oliver moved pension and benefit reform without the support of many in her caucus, and the wounds have yet to heal completely. I should note that tenure reform is just one of several contentious bills that need to be finalized soon. There is also the state budget and the Rutgers-Rowan merger to resolve.
These final days of the fiscal year will be an interesting time in the legislature, and it is anyone’s guess what will happen. However, there is consensus that if tenure reform is going to get done, now is the time.
As I walked back to the office from the proceedings, I realized that while I was intrigued by all the possible scenarios of how tenure reform might play out, the reason I wasn’t as excited as I thought I might be is that while this legislation is a historic step in the right direction, it is a small step–not a leap. But even small steps can lead to big political battles.