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NJ's main teachers union presenting its own ideas

By Geoff Mulvihill
Associated Press / November 7, 2011

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Long cast as defender of the status quo, New Jersey's teachers union has begun presenting its own ideas for major changes to the state's public school system.

"No one has more invested in the success of our students and our public schools than NJEA members," said Barbara Keshishian, president of the New Jersey Education Association, which represents nearly 170,000 teachers and other school employees.

The union has clashed consistently with Gov. Chris Christie since before he took office in January 2010. Some of the Republican's biggest policy accomplishments have had a big effect on teachers. Thousands of them were laid off when he cut about $1 billion last year from the state's subsidy for local schools. At the time, he lambasted unions, saying it was their fault for not taking contract concessions.

He also has imposed a cap on property tax growth and forced teachers and other public employees to make bigger contributions to their retirement and health insurance plans.

New Jersey, a well-educated, high-income state, consistently ranks near the top in the nation on scores on standardized tests. But those numbers -- pushed hard by the teachers union -- come with a couple of complicated issues. For one, it costs the state's taxpayers. The average homeowner's property tax bill is more than $7,500 -- the highest in the nation. And there remains a big performance gap between schools in the suburbs and those in the cities. Because of court rulings, those urban districts get most of the state's education subsidies and rank near the top in cost per student.

Christie has not made as much of a mark so far in education policy. His reform plans are likely to be a top priority after Tuesday's state legislative elections. Democrats control both chambers of the state Legislature and are expected to continue to do so after new members are sworn in in January.

Christie supports measures to undo some job protections for teachers and to use some public money to pay for student scholarships to private schools, among other changes.

The teachers' plans, which came out ahead of the union's convention in Atlantic City this week, acknowledge some of the same issues -- but offer alternative solutions.

Currently, teachers receive tenure after three years. Christie wants to make it easier to revoke tenure for educators who receive low evaluations. The union's proposal calls for not offering it until teachers have been in place for four years. The teachers also want to make it easier for experienced ones to attain tenure if they change school districts.

The proposal also calls for requiring full-day kindergarten statewide. Currently, many more affluent districts offer only half-day kindergarten.

The union also opposes using public funds to pay for private-school scholarships and giving for-profit education management companies any roles in running New Jersey schools.

The union says it's looking for lawmakers to sponsor bills that would turn its ideas into law.

A spokesman for Christie did not have an immediate response Monday to the NJEA's proposals.