A calculated move? Christie turns up heat on NJEA

To those who follow NJ’s education politics — particularly the fraught relationship between Gov. Chris Christie and NJEA, NJ’s primary teacher union — the past six months have been as bucolic as a Norman Rockwell painting.

This is commentary from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

To those who follow New Jersey’s education politics — particularly the fraught relationship between Gov. Chris Christie and NJEA, NJ’s primary teacher union — the past six months have been as bucolic as a Norman Rockwell painting.

Who needs Zoloft? We’ve got Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf, a featured speaker at NJEA’s Annual Convention this past November. (Last year, then-Ed. Comm. Rochelle Hendricks declined the invitation.) We’ve got NJEA Executive Director Vince Giordano telling a Star-Ledger columnist, “this label that we are the organization of ‘no’ I don’t think is accurate. We’ve turned a corner. We understand our role. We want to be part of the solution.” (Last year an NJEA officer sent out a memo that included a prayer for Gov. Christie’s early demise.)

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Now suddenly, after months of apparent entente, Gov. Christie appeared last week in Jersey City at a school choice summit and had nothing but disdain for his erstwhile comrades:

On  NJEA executives: “You need to decide whether you will sidle up next to the bully and whisper sweet nothings in his ear and hope he doesn’t punch you, too. Or do you walk up to him with the big smile on his face and punch him first.”

On NJEA’s wealth: the NJEA uses a “$130 million slush fund” — the amount it collects in annual dues — to “beat on the people who dare to speak out for children.”

And Tuesday at a Town Hall meeting in Freehold, Christie raged against executives at NJEA who “earn hundreds of thousands in salaries and sit in Trenton doing whatever they can to protect the status quo and their own jobs…These officials don’t care about options. They don’t care about the low achievement and graduation rates of most of the state’s urban schools.


What happened?

Did our Governor have a temper tantrum? Did he go off-script? Did he forget his happy pills? How’d we go from Norman Rockwell to Edvard Munch’s “Scream?” Why did he revert back to the bad old days of deriding union officials?

Most likely, this regression is a calculated move in response to the NJ Legislature’s reluctance to pass two bills that form the centerpiece of Gov. Christie’s education platform: the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) and tenure reform. The clock’s ticking: summer recess starts on June 25th and when the Senate and Assembly get back to work in September, its attention will be diverted  by the upcoming November elections.

Assailing the top union brass is a strategy that has worked for Christie before. Remember, almost exactly one year ago the Governor successfully swayed public opinion by engaging in a dramatic fisticuffs with union executives (who fell right into the trap). Ergo, the Legislature passed a landmark pension/benefits reform bill. If a strategy ain’t broke, why fix it?

Both OSA and the tenure reform bill have figured into Gov. Christie and Comm. Cerf’s vision for improving NJ’s public education system. The bills have found their way into documents like Race To The Top applications, No Child Left Behind waivers, and other reports issued by the DOE and the Governor’s Office. 

The modified version of OSA now before the Legislature is a small pilot program — 5,000 kids for five years — that would use corporation-sponsored tax breaks to fund scholarships to private and parochial schools.

Traditional district schools get to keep $10,000 of the cost per pupil, and the program is limited to poor kids in our worst schools. Gov. Christie has depleted much political capital over this bill, which has bipartisan support.

But Legislative leaders have memories too. Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, who suffered NJEA’s wrath after supporting the pension/benefits reform bill, has declared that she won’t bring the OSA up to the floor until 24 Democrats declare their support. She’s no glutton for punishment.

The tenure reform bill, specifically the one crafted by Sen. Teresa Ruiz, has endured years of due diligence and focus groups and public hearings and collaboration with stakeholders. Yet the bill appears stalled by NJ Democrats’ fear of NJEA’s wrath. (NJEA has produced its own proposal for tenure reform that adds a fourth year before acquisition of lifetime job security, neglecting to include key components like accountability and tenure limits.)

Will Gov. Christie’s stance goose the Statehouse into action? That’s anyone’s guess.  But turning up the heat in order to regain momentum for important legislation is a strategy that’s worked for him before.


Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJleftbehind.

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