NJEA outlines visions for education reform

New Jersey Education Association President Barbara Keshishian Tuesday outlined the teachers union’s vision for education reform, a proposal that includes tweaks to tenure, collective bargaining and teacher concessions, long controversial topics in the education community.

The tenure reform outlined by Keshishian includes virtually all of the current procedures for dismissing a tenured teacher – inefficiency, incapacity, conduct unbecoming and other just cause – but would refer cases to a neutral, nationally certified arbitrator rather than an administrative law judge as is the current practice.

“By taking the courts out of the equation, we believe the average case can be decided in 60 to 90 days and at a fraction of the cost,” Keshishian said, adding that reasons for dismissal would remain the same but the arbitrator’s ruling would be final and binding.

Under the current process, the average case takes between six and 12 months to complete and are governed by the state Education Commissioner’s final approval of the court ruling.

The change would require legislative approval, but Keshishian said the measure already has strong support from legislators, teachers and the public.

All public school employees, including employees of county colleges and public four-year public colleges, would be covered by the measure and the current three-year probationary period prior to attaining tenure would remain in effect.

“There is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding surrounding New Jersey’s current tenure law,” she said. “Tenure is not a job for life.  The law simply spells out the reasons for which and the process by which tenured teachers can and are dismissed.”

Asked why the union’s tenure reforms do not go further, Keshishian and other union officials supported the bulk of the process already in place.

Executive Director Vince Giordano said the union does not believe that the complaints about tenure include the “fairness” of the process, but rather the time involved in removing a teacher.  Giordano said while the union would listen to other proposals for tenure reform it would not entertain any that changed the standards for dismissal.

“I think we all know what happens then,” he said. “We turn it over to the politicians and the nepotism process and we are not going back there.”

But a governor’s spokesman disputed Giordano’s assertion that tenure reform was about the speed of the process.

“Real reform that puts quality education for every New Jersey student as our only priority requires complete reexamination of the tenure system,” said spokesman Michael Drewniak. “There is more to the broken tenure system than just the amount of time it takes to remove a bad teacher.”

Keshishian’s proposals were outlined in a wide ranging press conference outlining a raft of proposed reforms and ideas entitled Growing the Garden State for All Students.

In addition to tenure reform, the proposal also included changes to collective bargaining that would increase the scope of the negotiating process.

Among the items the union would like to see added to the process are class size, transfers and promotions, professional training and development and selection of instructional materials.

“Thanks to the collective bargaining process, we have been able to attract high-quality teachers and school staff to New Jersey’s schools, and our student achievement reflects that,” she said.

Keshishian also through the union’s support behind a measure passed in the senate and awaiting a vote in the assembly that would require any concessions made by teachers at the local level be used to restore positions and programs cut in the governor’s budget.

NJEA officials faced several questions about why merit pay for teachers, which was part of the unions original compromise reached last spring as part of the initial Race to the Top application later nixed by Christie, was not included in the proposal.

In answer officials said they believe research shows merit pay does not work and has in face been disbanded in states where it has been tried.

Much of the press conference was geared toward defending earlier attacks by Gov. Chris Christie, who has been largely successful in painting theunion as greedy and self serving.  Keshishian outlined several successes of the state’s schools including the highest graduation rate and advanced placement scores in the nation, 8th grade writing scores among the highest in the nation, Latino and African-American graduation rates that are the highest in the nation and pre-schools ranked number one in the country.

Asked what she thought would change in the union’s relationship with the governor, given his penchant for using the union as fodder for his cost cutting campaign, Keshishian said much of the NJEA proposal had laready been vetted by legislators and the remainder would not need legislative changes to implement.

As to whether Christie would view the proposals favorably, Keshishian said it remains to be seen.

“If anyone including the governor is interested in truly seeing education reforms take hold in our state than there has to be a dialog,” she said. “We are just waiting for that to begin.”


NJEA outlines visions for education reform