How Governor Christie avoided a messy showdown over standardized testing

Chris Christie

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie leaves the Capitol in Washington in this Nov. 17, 2014 file photo (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

Hand it to ol’ Chris Christie: on Monday he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by issuing an Executive Order that rendered Senate Bill 2154 pointless. (See earlier coverage here.) This draft bill, which coasted through the Assembly and appeared poised for Senate approval, proposed to delay the implementation of data-infused teacher evaluations by two years. Conveniently for the bill’s supporters, this delay would expire when Christie, presumably, would be preoccupied with presidential campaigning or clearing out Drumthwacket for the next governor and, perhaps, no longer interested in New Jersey educational issues.

Now roll-out of New Jersey’s new teacher evaluation system, linked to PARCC standardized tests, will commence next year as originally planned. Christie’s concession, a reasonable one, is that evaluative links to student growth will be phased in slowly: 10 percent this year, 20 percent next year, and then full steam ahead the following year at 30 percent. Christie also agreed to establish a study commission to oversee the initiative. He’ll appoint all members and they won’t issue a final report for over a year.

The state’s major teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, is applauding Gov Christie’s plan. “This is a major victory for NJEA” crowed union President Wendell Steinhauer — but a growing consortium of special interest groups are fuming. Thus, NJEA finds itself in the unfamiliar position of misalignment with the lobbyists that provide much of its momentum and blitz.

But New Jersey’s teachers union’s transient concession from Christie clashes with the sentiments expressed at both AFT and NEA’s recent annual meetings, where delegates affirmed their distaste for, among other things, standardized testing aligned with the Common Core, even going as far as to call for U.S. Ed. Sec. Arne Duncan’s resignation (at the NEA meeting) or, in the AFT’s case, for President Obama to implement a (data-based?) improvement plan for Sec. Duncan.

NJEA, then, has carved out a narrow niche that accommodates neither its loudest allies nor its parent organization.

Bob Braun, the fiery ex-Star-Ledger columnist turned blogger, termed the compromise a “sell-out,” bellowing,

“The union was happy to allow organizations like Save Our Schools—New Jersey to provide it with political cover so that its self-interested opposition to wrong-headed teacher evaluations could genuinely appear to be a much broader concern with the corporate reform movement that is driving much of these changes. The NJEA did everything it could to assume leadership of this growing and increasingly comprehensive anti-corporate movement but, in the end, in the last few days,  it took what short-term advantages it could get and ran, abandoning the larger issues embraced by its former partners.”

Save Our Schools-NJ, a major opponent to the PARCC tests, doesn’t expect too much to come out of the Governor-appointed task force. It has restated its call for a vote on the bi-partisan bill that would have delayed using test scores for teacher evaluation for 2 years and establish a task force not tied to the Governor.

Far-right-of-center opponents to both the Common Core and PARCC joined hands with Braun and SOS-NJ in their enmity towards NJEA’s compromise. Carolee Adams, president of the N.J. chapter of the Eagle Forum, told N.J. Spotlight, “Governor Christie’s Executive Order isn’t worth the paper on which it’s printed! Pathetic! Slapped together! Only about a study commission regarding assessments, it does NOT address a comparison of current vs. Common Core Standards. And, Christie wants to be President?! Not on our watch, I pray!”

While the backlash against New Jersey’s teachers union is running high, NJEA was wise to reach compromise with the Governor. The union solidifies reputation as advocates for both school employees and children and it maintains the integrity of N.J.’s current tenure and teacher evaluation reforms. 

But the real winner here is Governor Christie who no longer has to veto a bill that would have slowed down and possibly derailed implementation of standardized testing in New Jersey.

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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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