"When the union says I want to eliminate tenure, that’s not true."

Chris Christie on Friday, April 29th, 2011 in a speech at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Gov. Chris Christie says he doesn’t want to eliminate teacher tenure

Chris Christie speaks at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. To listen to the governor's remarks about teacher tenure, go to 32:37.

In the ongoing war of words between Gov. Chris Christie and the New Jersey Education Association, the governor is accusing the teachers union of distorting his proposals for tenure.

"So when the union says I want to eliminate tenure that’s not true," Christie said during a speech to students and professors at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "Here’s what I want to do with tenure. Based on this evaluation system I want to say after three years where you are judged either effective or highly effective you get tenure and then for every year thereafter where you are rated effective or highly effective you keep tenure and keep all the job protections that go along with tenure. But if you have two years in a row of partially effective or one year of ineffective you lose your tenure rights."

Once a teacher loses tenure, Christie said, he or she could earn it again with "three consecutive years of being rated effective or highly effective."

For this Truth-O-Meter item, we're assessing Christie's claim that his proposal does not abolish tenure. We found it hinges on how the word is defined.

We need to begin by pointing out the governor's contradiction on the issue. In his State of the State address in January, the governor said, "the time to eliminate teacher tenure is now."

But now, Christie says he does not want to eliminate tenure -- he wants teachers evaluated annually to keep it. But can that still be called tenure?

No, said the NJEA. Spokesman Steve Baker said Christie’s proposal "is not tenure" because that’s not how tenure is defined by state statute.

But Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, which has been more supportive of Christie's proposal, had a more nuanced view. He called it "renewable tenure."

A Christie spokesman declined to elaborate, but pointed us to a package of proposals that say they "fundamentally reform the state’s tenure system."  

The New Jersey statute that governs the requirements for tenure, 18A:28-5, states that after three consecutive years of employment with a school district, teachers "shall be under tenure during good behavior and efficiency and they shall not be dismissed or reduced in compensation except for inefficiency, incapacity, or conduct unbecoming such a teaching staff member or other just cause."

So the law specifies that continued good behavior is necessary to keep tenure.

Another statute states that when a school board reduces the number of teaching staff members, "dismissals … shall be made on the basis of seniority."

We found that tenure means different things to different sources -- even dictionaries:

Merriam-Webster: ". . . a status granted after a trial period to a teacher that gives protection from summary dismissal."

Cambridge dictionary: " . . . the right to remain permanently in a job."

Several other dictionaries say tenure is the holding of an office and a guarantee of permanent employment after a probationary period.

The definition gets murkier when politics enter the fray.

Christie pointedly defined tenure in his Harvard speech as "a job for life after three years and one day," a sarcastic line that suggests there is no process for dismissing teachers found to be incompetent.

But Baker, the union spokesman, said, "Tenure is not a job for life. Never has been. Never intended to be ... Tenure is a fair dismissal process."

PolitiFact New Jersey also contacted some professors for an independent take on whether Christie's plan can still be called tenure. The consensus was that Christie's plan dramatically changes the program, but that some aspects of tenure would remain in place.

"Tenure is a status that one attains after a period of probation that grants someone the right to remain in that job given good performance and, of course, with due process," said Ada Beth Cutler, dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Montclair State University.

"The tenure system as we know it now is going to be eliminated" if Christie’s proposals become law, she said.  "But tenure isn’t going to be eliminated."

Joseph DePierro, dean of Seton Hall’s College of Education and Human Services, called tenure "due process on steroids." He says the governor is "playing a funny game with tenure. It sort of eliminates it, but doesn’t quite eliminate it."

Bruce Baker, an associate professor at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education and no relation to the NJEA’s Steve Baker, said tenure, as it exists, is "the assumption of ‘continuous contract’ given satisfactory performance of job duties."

Whether or not Christie’s proposals change the definition of tenure, Bruce Baker wrote in an e-mail, "it certainly alters job security in significant ways, and does so with no counterbalancing proposal for significant increases in wages or other benefits."

For Jeffrey Keefe, an associate professor at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations and a research associate for the liberal Economic Policy Institute, the definition of tenure hinges on the "last in, first out" system, which would be eliminated under Christie's plan.

"Once you take the seniority clause out, it falls out of my definition of tenure. It becomes pretty meaningless then," Keefe said.

So to recap: There is no consensus. The dictionaries don’t agree. And Christie and the NJEA certainly aren’t on the same page.

The only agreement is that Christie’s proposal eliminates tenure as it is now defined in New Jersey. Some said it's reasonable to call that a form of tenure, while others said the word doesn't apply any more.

The governor said his plan doesn't eliminate tenure. But given that experts disagree about how to characterize his plan, we rate the governor’s statement Half True.

To comment on this ruling, go to NJ.com.