Editorial: Education reform not done in N.J.: Next up, ‘last in, first out’

| New Jersey Star Ledger | Editorial

New Jersey’s teacher tenure bill was signed into law this week, a resounding victory in the first round of the reform fight — but it’s not over yet.

To get that crucial legislation passed, reformers had to abandon their push to end the practice known as “last in, first out,” which protects absolute seniority rights during times of layoffs. The state’s largest teachers union insisted upon it.

Now, that sacrifice will fall hardest on cities such as Newark that face hundreds of layoffs over the next few years. They’ll be forced to purge their younger teachers, including even the most talented and hardworking ones.

That’s not what’s best for kids. Principals should have the power to retain and reward their top teachers. So we’ve got to rally around the seniority fight again, and drum up the political will to fix this. State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) was first out of the gate this week with a pledge to introduce new legislation to reform seniority, a key part of the governor’s agenda. But both parties need to get behind this effort.

The union argues that veteran teachers will be fired to save more money — a highly unlikely scenario because it would violate federal laws against age discrimination. The real effect of these rules is that districts are forced to fire good young teachers in times of layoffs.

At the very least, we must find a way to contain the damage. Superintendents in failing districts, for instance, could be allowed to select a certain number of “all-star” teachers who are shielded from layoffs, even without seniority.

Ultimately, though, we need a statewide policy change. Tenure reform will help remove bad teachers from the classroom, but what about our ability to hold on to the best ones?

According to a study of four urban school districts by the New Teacher Project, a New York-based policy group, many principals don’t make any distinction between their best and worst teachers. So, too often, the lowest-performing teachers stick around while the highest-performing ones, who feel frustrated and unappreciated, go elsewhere. Less than 30 percent of the best teachers leave for personal reasons beyond their school’s control, the study found.

Compensation was one of the reasons most frequently cited. Instead of awarding raises for seniority and advanced degrees, why not for talent? We’ve got to give principals more ability to control their own budgets, pay the best teachers what they’re worth and create a career ladder for them to climb.

But first thing’s first: We must make sure we can protect the best teachers during layoffs — regardless of seniority.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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