Chris Christie and the New Jersey teachers union are at it again

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

For Chris Christie and NJEA, N.J.’s primary teacher union, it’s deja vu all over again. After several years of a relatively decorous detente, we’re back to the rude fisticuffs and catcalls of 2010 and 2011, and all within a matter of days. What’s behind this political and behavioral regression?

Christie’s strategy is clear. In order to secure the 2016 Republican nomination for president, he has to confirm his conservative bona fides. Thus, this week he vetoed a gun control bill that he supported last year and endorsed Tea Party nut Steve Lonegan for U.S. Senate.

Christie’s attack on N.J.’s primary teacher union NJEA last week in Boston, then, was just one more genuflection to the Ron Pauls and Rick Santorums of the GOP. During a speech to the Republican National Committee (supposedly closed to the press but leaked to a Politico reporter) Christie described NJEA’s resistance to N.J.’s 2010 passage of health and benefits reform legislation:

“The teachers union in our state collects $140 million a year in dues. … It’s a $140 million political slush fund for them to use however they wish in mandatory dues,” he said. “That’s who we’re up against. So we decided very early that we had to fix the pension and benefit problem, at least move toward fixing it. And the only way to do it was to take them on directly… My philosophy on this can be best described this way: When you come to a new school yard and you’re the new kid in school — like you are when you’re the governor and you come to Trenton for the first time — and you walk onto the schoolyard and you see a bunch of people lying on the ground bloody and beaten up, and you see one person standing there with their arms folded across their chest staring at you. That’s the bully. In New Jersey, that bully is the New Jersey Education Association.”

(Has the man learned nothing from Mitt Romney, yet another moderate Republican from a blue state who pandered to the GOP’s Tea Party base? Swing too far right, sweet Christie, and that chariot will indeed carry you home.)

Christie’s strategy may be obvious. The reasons behind NJEA’s reversion to outright hostility, however, are not as easy to divine. Just a few days after Christie’s RNC speech, in a case of either rapid response or serendipity, NJEA released a $1 million ad campaign attacking Christie for school aid cuts and over-testing of students.

“Our public schools are still at or near the top in the nation, but not all is well right now,” said outgoing NJEA President Barbara Keshishian in an accompanying news release. “Our schools continue to do a great job against all odds, but teachers and parents are becoming increasingly distressed about the impact of deep budget cuts and an impending explosion of standardized testing.” The release quotes a N.J. teacher: “It’s so sad to see Governor Christie turning our schools into test-taking factories.”

Conflating school aid cuts and testing-mania seems odd, if efficient. Certainly, many N.J. school districts would be thrilled to receive more state aid. Unfortunately, the NJEA ads will run in Philadelphia (N.J. doesn’t really have its own market) where the miserly Keystone State allots only $13,167 per pupil, nowhere near the resources needed to accommodate the city’s needy population. Just across the river in Camden, NJ allots $23,709 per pupil. Both school systems are wretched but Camden’s woes have nothing to do with a lack of state aid from “deep budget cuts.”

“Test-taking factories”? Sure, everyone’s unnerved by the pending implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the more rigorous testing attached to the curriculum. However, a poll just released by the A.P. showed that “most parents interviewed believe their kids take the right amount of standardized tests.”

NJEA’s media move, timing aside, may be aimed at a bigger target than defense against the Boston remarks. Perhaps NJEA aims to narrow Christie’s lead over Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono.( In fact, recent polls show the 30% gap shrinking to 20%, and more NJ Democrats may come home.) Is the ad campaign a warning shot of inevitable labor union opposition to prospective presidential candidate Christie in 2016? If so, that’s a heap of union dues devoted to the obvious.

Or maybe the recent détente between Christie and NJEA’s leadership was merely an aberration and we’re back to the old bullying tactics. It’s going to be a long three years.

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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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