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Merit pay for schools may make the grade in NJ

By Angela Delli Santi
Associated Press / November 1, 2011

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TRENTON, N.J.—The leader of the New Jersey Senate said he won't stand in the way of a bill introducing merit pay into classrooms, so long as it singles out schools, not individual teachers, for achievement.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney told The Associated Press a merit pay bill that rewards schools for exceeding educational expectations could be debated before the Legislature recesses for the winter holidays.

However, the South Jersey Democrat said he won't consider a merit pay proposal for teachers because of the politics involved in giving individuals bonuses. Similarly, he said a bill removing seniority protections for veteran teachers wouldn't be considered.

Sweeney controls which bills get posted for discussion and votes in the Senate.

"Recognizing a school for excellence makes sense to me because it's going to make their jobs easier," he said last week.

Steve Wollmer, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, said the teachers union remains opposed to the concept of merit pay, but finds rewarding schools less problematic than compensating individual teachers for achievement.

"We agreed if you were really duty-bound to reward a school, do it for the school, don't pit teacher against teacher," he said.

Gov. Chris Christie is expected to press the Legislature to act on a series of changes to public education when it convenes after the Nov. 8 election. Christie's proposals include eliminating lifetime teacher tenure and seniority protections, tying teacher evaluations to student achievement and establishing a system of merit pay.

"I can push too," Sweeney said when asked about the pressure the Republican governor is expected to exert.

Many of the Republican governor's proposals require approval from the Democratic Legislature.

Sweeney said he would also consider allowing a discussion on revisions to teacher tenure, but said he would rely on Sen. Teresa Ruiz of Newark, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, to provide details.

The public teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, disagrees with many of the administration's proposals but recently recognized the need to come to the table with its own suggestions for change.

For example, NJEA Executive Director Vince Giordano last week said the union would support extending to four years the length of time for a teacher to receive tenure, provided that the first year would be one of intense supervision and mentorship like a medical internship.

The proposal is similar to a bill drafted by Ruiz, which calls for adding a fourth year before tenure is granted. Ruiz's proposal preserves seniority protections for teachers but gives school principals more authority over teachers working in their schools.

Currently, it takes three years for a New Jersey public school teacher to achieve tenure.

The union also has emphasized the challenge of evaluating teachers fairly.

It opposes using tests that measure student progress but don't consider classroom dynamics or outside influences, such as neighborhood factors, parental involvement and economics, as major criteria.