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New Jersey's fairer way to fire teachers

Ousting teachers in California is protracted, expensive and nearly impossible. Here's a better way.

August 08, 2012
  • Tenure will be harder for New Jersey teachers to get and easier to lose under a law Gov. Chris Christie, center, signed Monday.
Tenure will be harder for New Jersey teachers to get and easier to lose under… (Rich Schultz / Associated…)

Every time a proposal to reform the hiring and firing of teachers is put forward in California, it's just as complicated and, in ways, as counterproductive as the current system. Ousting teachers here is ruinously protracted and expensive and, ultimately, nearly impossible. Legislation to fix this regularly fails, in part because the bills aren't well conceived, but mostly because of opposition from the California Teachers Assn. and reluctance by Democratic politicians who rely on the union for support. Yet just this week, the state of New Jersey proved that it doesn't have to be difficult to be fair to teachers while weeding the ineffective ones from the classroom.

Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation Monday that lengthens the time a teacher must work before receiving tenure from three years to four. It also makes that probationary period more meaningful by requiring a year of working with a mentor and two years of satisfactory evaluations before tenure can be granted. If a school wants to fire a low-performing teacher who already has tenure, it must first try to help the teacher improve. If the teacher challenges the termination, the case is submitted to binding arbitration. Teachers are given a little more than three months to contest a firing, and the cost, which is paid by the state, cannot exceed $7,500. Efforts to terminate teachers must be based on comprehensive and regular performance evaluations.

California's current teacher protection system is similar to how New Jersey had run things for decades, but is even more dysfunctional. Schools must make tenure decisions on new teachers within 18 months. Any termination attempt is subject to restrictions on when the teacher can even be notified that he or she has been targeted; appeals then go to an administrative law panel — whose makeup is slanted in favor of the teacher — that can take years to convene and decide a particular case. Legislation to streamline this ineffective process has gone too far in the other direction by making the appeals process advisory only.

Because New Jersey's new law ensures that struggling teachers receive help and due process before they can be fired, it won the support of the state teachers union and bipartisan approval from legislators. At the same time, the law replaces the costly and time-consuming quagmire that has allowed seriously problematic teachers to remain in the classroom.

Such reform requires a governor who is dedicated to the welfare of students; Christie has made education a cornerstone of his administration, while California Gov. Jerry Brown has yet to articulate a set of educational priorities. Also necessary was a teachers union that was willing to consider ending an unreasonable and increasingly unpopular system. It shouldn't be this hard to do the right thing by California's public school students.

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