‘I want to thank the folks at the New Jersey Education Association. . . . The fact of the matter is that this was not going to get done without their input, their support, and their help, and so I want to thank them for their willingness to come to the table.” So said Chris Christie, scourge of the teachers’ unions, of his most recent legislative accomplishment, a reform of the state’s teacher-tenure system.
Did hell freeze over? Can pigs fly? Did Chris Christie really thank a teachers’ union in public?
He did indeed, because the NJEA supported the Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey (TEACHNJ) Act, a small but significant step in the right direction.
New Jersey previously had the oldest teacher-tenure laws in the nation. Teachers were guaranteed tenure after three years on the job. But now, under Christie’s reform, all New Jersey schools must “convene a school improvement panel” that will “oversee the mentoring of teachers and conduct evaluations of teachers, including an annual summative evaluation,” which will be based at least in part on student performance. Before teachers, principals, or vice principals receive tenure, they have to be evaluated as “effective” or “highly effective” for three straight years, beginning in their second year of employment. Tenure can be revoked for those deemed “ineffective” for two straight years.
The NJEA supported the law only when all sides agreed not to touch “last in, first out,” a policy that requires school districts to conduct teacher layoffs based on seniority rather than merit. New Jersey is one of only eleven states with “last in, first out.” The TEACHNJ Act affirms that decisions about which teachers to let go “shall be made on the basis of seniority,” and that “if any teaching staff member shall be dismissed . . . such person shall be and remain upon a preferred eligible list in the order of seniority for reemployment.” In other words, New Jersey schools will continue to lay off newer teachers before older ones and rehire older teachers before newer ones.
Bob Bowdon, the director of the pro-school-choice documentary The Cartel and head of Choice Media, a nonprofit website that advocates school choice, downplays the significance of the law. He calls it a “watered-down bill” that will have only a small effect. Because the law maintains teacher seniority, Bowdon argues, “it certainly doesn’t match with the goal of doing what’s best for children.” He asks, “If you ran a business, would you keep somebody who doesn’t do as good a job, simply because of seniority?”
Immediately after signing the bill into law, Governor Christie, who has said that The Cartel “helped mold” his opinion on education reform, called for an end to “last in, first out” and promised to push for further reform. Bowdon is cautiously optimistic. “‘Push for’ is a poorly defined term,” he explains, but “it certainly seems, based on Christie’s record, that he believes in merit pay for teachers.”
Lindsey Burke, an education expert at the Heritage Foundation, calls the law “pretty good,” and notes that it’s “pretty amazing that Christie was able to broker a deal with the union.” Burke believes that the teachers’ unions’ power is decreasing. The National Education Association (NEA), the NJEA’s parent union, has lost 150,000 members in the past year, and Christie, according to Burke, has the momentum in the fight against the teachers’ union.
Before it received promises that “last in, first out” would be protected, the union listed its “concerns” with the TEACHNJ Act in a five-page memo, which consisted mostly of unsubstantiated arguments and clichéd talking points about “advocating for students” and “defending curriculum.” The NJEA’s change of position means not that they eventually saw the light on education reform, but that they felt the political pressure.
Bowdon sees the NJEA’s newfound support as political triangulation. “If they could pass a law that says ‘Reform’ on the cover, and do nothing in the bill, they would love that.” The NJEA sensed that commonsense tenure reform is an easy sell to the electorate. The TEACHNJ Act had strong bipartisan support (Democratic state senator Teresa Ruiz sponsored it), so going along with it was simply a public-relations move for the NJEA, according to Bowdon. The union will continue to “politically undermine anyone who stands in the way.”
That’s certainly true, but recent history suggests the union’s power is waning. Christie has scored victory after victory against the NJEA, and his passion for reform is remarkably sincere. There’s little reason to believe that Christie won’t continue to push for reforms, including an end to “last in, first out.” It’s also true that the TEACHNJ Act doesn’t solve many problems for the New Jersey school system, but it could serve as a sturdy foundation for more substantial reforms in the future.
The NJEA’s support for the TEACHNJ Act is more than a minor political achievement. Just a few years ago, the union fought viciously against minor reforms of teachers’ pay and pension plans, but the education-reform movement nonetheless continues to advance.
— Noah Glyn is an editorial intern at National Review.