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New Jersey teachers answer Christie with proposals of their own

For most of the year, Gov. Christie has been tearing into the state's largest teachers' union, blaming it for everything from failing schools to the high cost of government.

For most of the year, Gov. Christie has been tearing into the state's largest teachers' union, blaming it for everything from failing schools to the high cost of government.

On Tuesday, the New Jersey Education Association responded with a raft of proposals to overhaul education, including a plan to have arbitrators rather than administrative law judges decide teacher-dismissal cases. The union says the move would shorten the process by which teachers are dismissed and make it less expensive.

Arbitrators' decisions, which would cover all school employees as well as employees of county colleges and public four-year colleges, would be final.

"There is a misconception in New Jersey by some people that NJEA and its members are somehow opposed to education reform," said NJEA president Barbara Keshishian. "It's time to set the record straight."

Keshishian said New Jersey's public schools were among the best in the country, by measures including graduation rate, Advanced Placement scores, and eighth-grade writing scores.

Christie, a supporter of school vouchers, charter schools, and merit pay for teachers, has long seemed at war with the NJEA. He has called on teachers to accept concessions such as salary freezes in order to save fellow teachers' jobs in light of the state's budget problems, and he has made repeated remarks about his unwillingness to sit down with NJEA leaders until they decide they want to become "a part of the solution."

The Christie administration said Tuesday the NJEA's proposals did not go far enough.

"While the governor is encouraged the NJEA is finally acknowledging the tenure system is broken, given the fatal flaws in the current system, this is simply not enough," spokesman Michael Drewniak said. "Real reform that puts quality education for every New Jersey student as our only priority requires complete reexamination of the tenure system."

A year ago, the NJEA gave Christie's transition team a binder full of paper describing possible reform initiatives, Keshishian said.

"We heard nothing back from him, or any member of his administration," she said.

Among the union's current proposals are:

Ensuring that all children from prekindergarten to age 8 have access to good preschool, all-day kindergarten, and small class sizes.

Creating teams of educational-technology coaches to help teachers share their expertise with their colleagues.

Promoting New Jersey colleges and universities and renewing the state's commitment to the NJ STARS scholarship program.

Creating a two-year mentoring program for new teachers.

Requiring school districts that win contract concessions from teachers to use the savings to maintain staffing and programs.

Expanding collective bargaining for teacher contracts to include class size.

Creating a state-funded, voluntary grant program to reward teacher-driven innovation.

Keshishian said dismissal now takes around nine months and costs the union about $25,000 per case. The NJEA proposal would shorten the time it takes to fire a teacher to two or three months, Keshishian said.

Dismissals are rare in New Jersey. In 2008, there were 35 education-tenure cases in the state, about one for every 6,600 employees. State education officials said they had not compiled data on the disposition of those cases, including how many school employees were ultimately fired.

The Senate Education Committee is to hold a hearing Thursday about the impact of tenure on public education.