Are the Teacher Unions on the Ropes? New Jersey Scores a Big One for Tenure Reform

Though two headlines this week about the just released Civil Rights Project study on school suspensions—“Suspensions Are Higher for Disabled Students, Federal Data Indicate” (New York Times) and “Researchers Sound Alarm Over Black Student Suspensions” (Education Week)—suggest our continued ambivalence about race (see Mike Petrilli’s post here), I would like to take a moment to praise Chris Christie and his New Jersey education team for a watershed event on teacher evaluations and tenure that might just have some salubrious effect on student discipline.

On Monday, the Garden State governor upset a century-old teacher-tenure law, codifying a statute that creates a new teacher-rating scheme and also streamlines the process for firing both teachers and administrators.

As Heather Haddon noted in the Wall Street Journal, the Garden State is not the first to reform teacher evaluation and tenure rules—remember Wisconsin?—and Christie did not get the legislature to put an end to last-in-first-out seniority rules which a number of other states have managed to kill, but the law signed by Christie “was most significant for where it occurred: in a blue, East Coast state with a strong organized-labor movement and a Legislature controlled by Democrats.”

The New York Post called the new law a “coup.”

Yet Barbara Keshishian, head of the New Jersey’s teachers union said that the “legislation moves us in the right direction by making it harder to earn tenure, and less expensive and time-consuming to remove teachers who are not performing well.”

“Yes,” opined the Post, “that’s the sound of Hell freezing over.”  (Recall the infamous YouTube fight Christie had with a brave teacher in 2010.)

Derrell Bradford, executive director for the Jersey-based Better Education for Kids, told the Wall Street Journal. “In 2009, if you told me we’d have tenure reform, I would have looked at you like you had two heads.”

According to the New York Times’s Kate Zernike, “The new law suggests how much the landscape has changed on revising education, and on tenure, long among the most contentious issues for teachers’ unions and legislators.”

Indeed, as Stephen Sawchuk has been reporting in Education Week, the national teacher unions are on the defensive.  Sawchuk states succinctly the existential question:

“Can a teachers’ union successfully be both a hardball-playing defender of its rights and a collaborative force for the common good?”

The envelope, please!

-Peter Meyer

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Board’s Eye View blog.

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