When a school district wants to fire a tenured teacher, its chief administrator files charges against the instructor with the state education department, an agency that supervises the procedure and, under the law, ensures due process in an adversarial proceeding between the district and the teacher. That’s the theory anyway. In reality, however, the state education department under Gov. Chris Christie has proven biased against teachers–especially when the district is Newark and the administrator bringing charges is Cami Anderson.
The evidence of collusion between Christie and Anderson is strong and borders on–if not crosses the border into– a conspiracy to deprive teachers of their civil rights. Of course, no prosecutor in New Jersey, state or federal, has the chutzpah to conduct an investigation.
At the core of the conspiracy is the new tenure law, TEACHNJ, and its enforcing regulations, ACHIEVENJ. They require that any teacher who has received two consecutive poor ratings in annual evaluations within three years automatically be brought up on tenure charges of “inefficiency”–basically, incompetence. School districts throughout New Jersey were given until this past school year–2013-2014–to develop evaluation standards that could be used to try to fire tenured teachers. A number of school districts, including Newark, were allowed to become so-called “pilot” districts during the previous school year, 2012-2013–to test out those standards–for themselves and for the edification of other districts.
No one–not even the top officials of the state education department–anticipated that the pilot year would count as the first of the two consecutive years a district could use to fire teachers based on two bad annual–or “summative”– evaluations. This is what the education department said in a question-and-answer document it posted on its website:
“Q: Will summative ratings ‘count’ this year (2012-2013) toward tenure decisions?
“A: No–the only item ‘on the clock’ is the mentorship year for new teachers. No evaluation outcomes in the 2012-2013 school year will impact tenure decisions. 2013-2014 is the first year where the statewide system will be in place, and the first year when the summative rating ‘clock’ (ie: teachers needing to be rated at least effective for two of three years) will start.”
Ok, the grammar is horrendous, but you get the idea. These words are clear: “No evaluation outcomes in the 2012-2013 school year will impact tenure decisions.”
The Q and A was on the state education department site for at least a year–but then it was taken down. The timing for the take-down was at best curious: It was taken down just days after lawyers for Newark teacher Sandra Cheatham–a 40-year veteran of the school system–filed their answers to tenure charges brought against her by Cami Anderson. Anderson relied on two bad annual evaluations–2012-13 and 2013-2014–to try to fire Cheatham.
An arbitrator rejected Anderson’s effort. He cited the Q and A and a lot of other evidence as well, including the statute and the regulations. Within weeks, another arbitrator threw out a similar charge against Neil Thomas, a popular science teacher whose son Jordan, now a Princeton University freshman, just happened to be the student member of the Newark school board. Just before Jordan left the board–and before his father faced tenure charges–he publicly lambasted Anderson. Jordan, who had remained silent about the superintendent for the entire school year, accused Anderson of a “district-wide initiative to ensure the perpetual deterioration and failure of strong Newark Public Schools and the rapid proliferation of corporate-backed charter schools.”
The arbitrator also cited the guidance given to school districts–but he also cited another document: A letter from Peter Shulman, an assistant education commissioner, to Charlotte Hitchcock, the lawyer for Anderson’s administration, that tried to cover up the bait-and-switch in the Q and A.
Shulman wrote that the language about using 2012-2013 ratings was meant only for non-tenured teachers, not tenured. “Through this guidance, The Department sought to clarify when summative ratings would count toward earning tenure.” Emphasis in the original.
Earning tenure, not losing it. But that just isn’t what it says. It says tenure decisions–and firing a tenured teacher is certainly a tenure decision.
If I were Shulman, I would be embarrassed at having to concoct such blatant rot. He clearly must have done it at the direction of Acting Commissioner David Hespe–and I’d be embarrassed if I were he, as well.
There is so much more that is wrong with Shulman’s letter beyond the fact it contradicts plain English and common sense. The arbitrator in the Thomas case called the letter “problematic” and “inconsistent with previous communications.”
Here’s another reason why it’s problematic. Shulman, who is supposed to work for an agency legally neutral in tenure cases is writing this letter to the lawyer for one of the parties–but not both. In other words, Shulman–who copied the letter to Hespe, a lawyer–is taking legal positions and commenting on evidence in a contested matter.
No, that’s not right. If a judge sent a private note to just one party in a contested matter, he or she would be subjected to discipline. The lawyers responsible for keeping the education department neutral–starting with Hespe–have the same responsibility. Please take note, State Supreme Court, something is rotten in the state of New Jersey.
Something else: After I read the Cheatham decision, I filed an Open Public Records Act request about the take-down of the tenure “guidance” posted on the state’s website. I asked for “any and all correspondence between and among staff members, whether through written, emailed, or any other medium of communication, in which the decision to remove that page is discussed.”
The state education department didn’t send it–despite a reference in the letter from Shulman to Hitchcock saying the agency was responding to questions from teachers. Those questions would be covered by my OPRA request. Shulman’s letter also is copied to Hespe and Patricia Morgan, the department’s lawyer, certainly “staff members.” The letter itself should have been sent in response to my OPRA request. The leadership of the education department violated OPRA.
Top officials of the state education department are conspiring with top officials of the state-administered Newark school district to deprive teachers of their tenure rights. Plain and simple.