Why the 2014 Newark mayoral race is so important to the teacher unions

 Feb 2012 photo of Newark Mayor Cory Booker with Governor Chris Christie. Booker championed many school reforms unpopular with the unions.  (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Feb 2012 photo of Newark Mayor Cory Booker with Governor Chris Christie. Booker championed many school reforms unpopular with the unions. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Did you hear about last Monday’s “National Day of Action to Reclaim the Promise of Public Education?” Maybe not. Despite a media blitz from the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, despite allocations of $1.2 million of teachers’ union dues, despite organized protests in 90 cities across the country, this event had little impact.

For New Jersey, the more meaningful signal was sent by the AFT’s decision to hold its “Day of Action” in Newark. (Pennsylvanians headed over to Gov. Corbett’s Philly office on Broad Street.)

Newark, after all, is the heart of N.J. education reform territory and boasts the state’s most progressive teacher contract (signed last year with great acclaim), an extensive and successful cadre of charter schools that educates one in four public school students, and a superintendent whose latest initiative embraces parental empowerment through a universal enrollment plan. Some of that progress is at stake as Newark residents get ready to pick a replacement for Senator Cory Booker.

That’s the likely reason why the union leadership didn’t choose Trenton for the protest even though participants could have righteously paraded past guilt-ridden Statehouse legislators as Trenton High School collapses from its own decrepitude.

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Just one year ago Newark Teachers Union (NTU) President Joseph Del Grosso proudly assured his members that their new contract, resolved after years of negotiations, was “a step in the right direction for the teaching profession” and he praised teachers for their courage to embrace a new era of educator professionalism. After 62 percent of NTU members voted in favor of a reform-minded contract that replaced lockstep salary increases with generous bonuses based on classroom effectiveness, Del Grosso regaled them as “heroes.” Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, the mothership of NTU, exulted, “this is a dynamic new contract that’s fair to the teachers and most importantly, good to the kids.” A few days later she appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” arm in arm with Chris Christie.

Yet here we are one year later as the union leadership protests the very policies so ardently praised last year and yearns for an obsolete status quo. As such, Newark’s Day of Action seems less a rowdy reclamation of “the promise of public education” than a discordant clang with last year’s celebratory lovefest. The full set of AFT sound bites are summed up in this Facebook post:

“Parents, teachers, students and community members are taking part in the Day of Action because they know that the market-based ideologies of privatization, austerity, division and competition are failing our children. They want to reclaim our schools and improve public education for all.”

[Irony alert: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave Newark $100 million, partly to fund those Newark teacher merit pay bonuses.]

Cognitive dissonance aside, there are three reasons to hold this Day of Action in Newark:

First, Cory Booker, the charismatic reform-minded mayor who is almost personally responsible for the Facebook grant, has gone off to the wilds of Washington and two of the four contenders for his seat, Ras Baraka and Anibal Ramos, are virulently anti-school reform. (Baraka is a man of many gifts; not only does he serve as Newark City Councilman, which many would consider a full-time job, but also is Principal of Newark’s troubled Central High.)

If Baraka or Ramos wins the mayoral seat, Superintendent Cami Anderson faces a far less friendly administration. The site of Jersey’s Day of Action may be a tip of the hat towards Anderson’s dwindling days of support from the Mayor’s Office and the diminution of her power. Think of it as a (smaller) mirror of the other side of the Hudson, where Bill de Blasio is replacing reform-friendly Mike Bloomberg.

Second, the Newark School Board, after 20-odd years of state intervention, is on the verge of handing back those rubber stamps and recovering fiscal control of the 37,000-student district. A majority of board members are controlled by Baraka.

Third, NJEA and NTU leadership fought mighty hard for Democrat Barbara Buono, erstwhile gubernatorial candidate. NJEA’s super PAC alone spent $6 million on her behalf. Christie’s lopsided win further irritates relations with union leaders and you can bet that they’re eagerly awaiting the next election. Newark’s Day of Action is, in that sense, an early warning shot that labor unions are far from demoralized and ready to reclaim that old public promise._______________________________________________________

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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