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By Erin O'Neill July 9, 2012

Steve Sweeney claims new legislation doesn’t eliminate teacher tenure

Senate President Steve Sweeney said new legislation transforms tenure into a system fit for the 21st-century while maintaining the protections it gives teachers.

Tenure has been modernized, not eliminated in a bill recently passed by the state Legislature but not yet signed by the governor, Sweeney told WNYC host Brian Lehrer in a July 2 interview.

Lehrer asked Sweeney, "What does tenure mean if you can then remove the teachers who you don't think are doing a good job?"

"Well what happens is … tenure is after three years in the state of New Jersey, tenure you have a lifetime job. So if you, seven years, 10 years into the job … it was almost impossible to get rid of a teacher. Now, with the evaluation processes that we're going to have going forward, teachers aren't performing as they should be and they get bad evaluations we can move to remove those teachers much more quickly," Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said.

"So does that change tenure or does that end tenure?" Lehrer asked. "Should we say tenure is over in New Jersey?"

"No, tenure still exists but it's been overhauled," Sweeney said. "I would say Brian it's been modernized."

Saying that tenure provides teachers a "lifetime job" suggests there is no process for firing teachers. However, such a system existed prior to this legislation, though critics argue it was so costly and cumbersome that it was hardly used.

But for this fact-check, we’re only examining Sweeney’s claim that tenure for teachers still exists in New Jersey.

Last year, PolitiFact New Jersey gave Gov. Chris Christie a Half True for saying that when the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, says he wants to "eliminate tenure, that’s not true."

But Christie’s proposals and the new legislation differ in several ways.

The legislation creates an annual evaluation system for educators, a plan backed by Christie. Under the system teachers can receive one of four ratings: ineffective, partially effective, effective and highly effective.

New teachers must complete a one-year mentorship program and then receive positive evaluations in two of the next three years in order to receive tenure. Previously, teachers earned tenure after three years on the job.

The legislation also requires the filing of an inefficiency charge against tenured teachers receiving negative evaluations for two consecutive years. But teachers can contest those charges with an arbitrator. Previously, administrative law judges handled such disputes.

Under Christie’s plan and the legislation as it was first introduced teachers who received negative evaluations would lose their tenure rights and therefore could not contest their dismissal, except in narrow circumstances outlined in the original bill.

NJEA spokesman Steve Baker said tenure still exists under the new legislation.

"The fundamental issue is that a teacher, having earned tenure, retains the right to due process before she or he can be fired," Baker said. "Tenure, under statute, is simply the right to due process in the form of a chance to have a hearing before a neutral third party."

Jeffrey Keefe, a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations, said there are two elements of teacher tenure: a just-cause requirement for dismissal after three years of probation and seniority in layoffs provided the teacher is certified for a potential vacancy possibly held by a less senior teacher.

Christie wanted to eliminate seniority protections during layoffs. But the "last in, first out" system -- which means the newest teachers are laid off first -- remains intact in the new legislation.

"I think tenure was overhauled in the bill, since schools could always dismiss a teacher for cause including poor performance (provided there were efforts to correct the unacceptable performance)," Keefe said.

Our ruling

Sweeney said "tenure still exists but it's been overhauled" in New Jersey.

A bill approved by the Legislature makes it more difficult to earn tenure and requires inefficiency charges to be filed against teachers receiving negative evaluations for two consecutive years. But the bill does not eliminate a tenured teacher’s right to appeal those charges.

The law also maintains seniority protections during layoffs.

For those reasons, we rate Sweeney’s statement True.

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Our Sources

WNYC, The Brian Lehrer Show: Interview with Senate President Steve Sweeney, July 2, 2012

New Jersey Legislature, Senate Bill No. 1455, adopted June 18, 2012

New Jersey Legislature, Senate Bill No. 1455 as introduced, Feb. 6, 2012

New Jersey Statutes 18A:28-5 and 18A:28-10,

E-mail interview with Jeffrey Keefe, an associate professor at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations, July 5, 2012

E-mail interview with Derek Roseman, spokesman for Senate Democrats, July 5, 2012

E-mail interview with Steve Baker, spokesman for New Jersey Education Association, July 5, 2012

Interview with Steve Wollmer, spokesman for New Jersey Education Association, July 5, 2012

PolitiFact New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie says he doesn’t want to eliminate teacher tenure, June 21, 2011

The Star-Ledger, Sweeping N.J. teacher's tenure bill passes Legislature, heads to Gov. Christie's desk, June 25, 2012

The Star-Ledger, N.J. Senate president expresses concern about politics in school districts, July 3, 2012

The Star-Ledger, Gov. Chris Christie may not sign teacher tenure bill, stuck on layoff protocol, June 27, 2012

PolitiFact Florida, Eliminate tenure for new teachers, May 24, 2011

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