NJ Teacher Tenure in Danger After California Ruling?

Few subjects in education are more controversial than teacher tenure.  Following a California court’s ruling that subjecting students to bad teachers violates student’s fundamental right to a quality education, State Senator Joe Kyrillos is calling for tenure reform in New Jersey.

Kyrillos plans to reintroduce the School Children First Act (S-2171) and also mentioned the possibility of working with the Students Matter advocacy group, which funded the California suit.

“This overhaul bill allows public school districts to best serve their students and communities by ensuring only the best teachers, administrators and staff members are the ones educating and nurturing our next generation,” Kyrillos said.

The California tenure lawsuit argued that the state’s laws are unconstitutional because they keep grossly ineffective teachers in place at the expense of student learning. It further alleged that these poor performers are disproportionately situated in schools serving predominately low-income and minority students in violation of the equal rights clause of the California Constitution.

The statistics cited in the California case “shock the conscience,” to borrow the words of Judge Treu. According to one educational expert, students taught by a teacher in the bottom five percent of competence lose 9.54 months of learning in a single year compared to students with average teachers.

Sen. Kyrillos’ proposal would eliminate the “last-in, first-out” method of laying off teachers, which was one of the statutes struck down in the California suit. The judge ruled that putting seniority over performance is unconstitutional, noting that the logic of separating students from competent teachers while retaining ineffective ones “is unfathomable and therefore constitutionally unsupportable.”

Under the School Children First Act, any dismissals resulting from a reduction in force would be made on the basis of effectiveness rather than seniority. Years of experience would also not be the primary factor in determining teacher compensation. Factors such as performance on annual reviews, assignment to a failing school, and teaching in a difficult to staff subject would also be taken into account.

The bill would also improve accountability by requiring school districts to publicly report the number of teachers in each school who received a rating of ineffective, partially effective, effective, and highly effective on their yearly evaluations. In the California lawsuit, experts cited that one to three percent of teachers in the state are grossly ineffective. Even assuming that New Jersey teachers are better performing, it is still difficult to argue that current tenure laws are not having a real and appreciable impact on thousands of students.

While New Jersey passed significant teacher tenure reform in 2012, the compromise bill did not go nearly as far as many, including Gov. Chris Christie, would have liked. Many of the perks of seniority, including “last-in, first-out,” were not addressed. Sen. Kyrillos’ last bill died in committee; it will be interesting to see if he fairs better this time around.

For a more in-depth discussion of the California lawsuit, please see “California Judge Strikes Down Teacher Tenure Laws As Unconstitutional” on the Scarinci Hollenbeck Government & Law Blog.

Donald Scarinci is a managing partner at Lyndhurst, N.J. based law firm Scarinci Hollenbeck.  He is also the editor of the Constitutional Law Reporter and Government and Law blogs.

NJ Teacher Tenure in Danger After California Ruling?