Commentary: Why a Christie presidential bid is good for New Jersey’s teachers union

 Governor Christie's 2013 re-election campaign bus. Buses like this are typically used by well-funded presidential candidates. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Governor Christie's 2013 re-election campaign bus. Buses like this are typically used by well-funded presidential candidates. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

The nation’s atwitter about a potential Republican nomination brawl between Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, as well as a posse of Tea Party candidates.

One of the wedge issues, pundits predict, will be education policy. Picture it now: Bush and Christie, both moderate Republicans, saddled up at debate podia and straddled by an assortment of more conservative cowboys like Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, and maybe even Mike Huckabee. Remember what happened to Mitt Romney with his maladroit references to the “47%” and “corporations are people too?” Suddenly two more moderate Republican governors, one from purplish Florida and one from blue Jersey, may be forced to shift right by the collective heft of conservatives who demean the Common Core State Standards and standardized assessments.  

Here’s another prediction: the likely airing of this Bush/Christie spaghetti western will warm up the political relationship between the 2015 New Jersey State Legislature and the N.J. Education Association. This shift will, in turn, affect debates and outcomes on unresolved education policies at the Statehouse this year, which include yet another effort to update the state’s twenty-year old charter school law, the future of PARCC standardized testing, school funding,  local control in Newark, and the sun-setting of the pension/health benefits reform act on July 1.

Christie has made formidable enemies out of NJEA staffers, as well as a long list of members. He owes part of his national spotlight to his attacks on teachers and union leaders, which seem to have lifted his national charm quotient as the plainspoken Jersey Shore guy. But with the bro’ on the road for the foreseeable future, legislators are less wary of trampling on the Governor’s pet projects. (One example: the chilly reception Tuesday of Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson by the Joint Commission of Public Schools). Attention has already drifted towards Christie’s potential successor and suddenly NJEA is everyone’s best friend.

Cheat sheets currently pit the gubernatorial contest between Senate President Steve Sweeney and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop. Fulop needs NJEA’s backing to win the governorship and he knows it.  While Fulop made a practice of campaigning for Jersey City school board candidates who regularly run against a slate endorsed and funded by the local union affiliate, this year Fulop sat out the campaign in order to not antagonize NJEA. (The non-union slate was badly beaten.) Sweeney would like NJEA’s backing too, but he needs it less. After all, he can count on the sway of South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross and Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo.  

But don’t doubt NJEA’s clout, even with Sweeney.  Most likely the union is feeling empowered by Christie’s pending departure and increasingly long list of missteps. While NJEA’s unity has been challenged recently by the emergence of internal militant factions like Badass Teachers Association, I’d guess the mood is pretty buoyant. 

As far as education proposals before the Legislature, the prognosis for charter school reform is grim. It’s just too politically messy. PARCC tests continue to diminish in popularity (although this decline might be mitigated by a smooth implementation this spring if the D.O.E. can outspin the opt-out movement). Christie’s school aid budget will make everyone unhappy and Anderson’s pool of allies shrinks by the day. 

But Statehouse paralysis may be gratifying to union leaders who can look ahead to a Democratic governor far more friendly to the union agenda, as well as a national audience witnessing Christie’s comeuppance. (Insiders say that, anyway, Christie may really be jockeying for appointment of U.S. Attorney General, a better launching point for a presidential campaign than his leadership of a state burdened by daunting pension liabilities, Newark school and governance rebellions, and unsustainable school costs.)

One potential wrench in this satisfying denouement for N.J.’s teacher union leaders’ arch-enemy is the possibility that national union leaders may pressure the state group to back off on Christie attacks.  Who would you choose to debate Hillary Clinton? Statesman-like Jeb Bush or scandal-ridden Chris Christie? I’d bet on the latter. Just in the last few days AFT President Randi Weingarten has started tweeting anti-Bush messages like, “Jeb Bush wants to run for President but still thinks marriage #equality should be put to a vote” and “JebBush doesn’t have a great reputation with Univ of FL Foundation. They want less politics & more edu investment.”  NEA’s PAC is highlighting Bush’s comment last year that “we must expand [school] choice. Our governance model [for public education] includes over 13,000 government-run monopolies run by unions.”

In other words, N.J. union leaders might receive marching orders from national union leaders to lay off the anti-Christie rhetoric because he’s a weaker candidate than Bush. If so, NJEA’s leadership may have to tolerate short-term suppression for long-term gain, and that may be the gestalt in the Statehouse too.  Jersey is horse country, but we prefer sunbathing to rodeos.

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Laura Waters is vice 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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