Representing the status quo in education can be a liability

 Democrat Barbara Buono appears at the New Jersey teachers union conference in East Brunswick. (Photo by Buono for Governor's Flickr page)

Democrat Barbara Buono appears at the New Jersey teachers union conference in East Brunswick. (Photo by Buono for Governor's Flickr page)

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

I read Blue Jersey every day. Unabashedly liberal and progressive, the politically-oriented, Jersey-centric news site offers a daily rundown of articles and editorials with smart and snarky commentary. Examples: a link to a N.J. Spotlight article on new health exchanges is annotated, “Chris Christie, hewing to the GOP, did everything to oppose the Affordable Care Act.” A Star-Ledger piece is introduced by the heading, “The GOP Plan to Gut Food Stamps.”

The site offers a slice of left-wing zeitgeist, a quick glimpse of the mood of Garden State Democrats-with-big-D’s. (Full disclosure: I’m a Democrat too, although not as robust as the Blue Jersey folk; on certain issues my big D slumps lower-case.) That glimpse reveals a rising level of frustration at, among other things, the failure of the public and the mainstream media to look seriously at Buono’s education platform, even as polls show a (slightly) tightening race.Example: one particular Blue Jersey header today (on, sadly, 9/11): “Et tu, [Camden Mayor] Dana Redd? Dem mayor helps Christie get mileage in Camden.” You could eat the betrayal with a fork.

What’s tripping Buono up? In part, Buono’s ability to articulate a compelling education plan is compromised by her deep ties to the teachers’ union. She needs NJEA’s ability to get feet on the ground for get-out-the-vote efforts.Just as much as manpower, she needs its money. NJEA, in fact, has created a Super PAC for her (which allows it to raise unlimited amounts of money) called Garden State Forward. The site features paeans to N.J.’s public education system, including statements like “New Jersey’s public schools are often cited for academic achievement, outperforming other states…and ranking among top nations.”

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How can she speak freely about the abject failures of Camden’s public schools – as Christie did in that featured article – without contradicting her benefactors?

Buono’s dependence on NJEA’s resources disallows her from sticking a big toe in substantive education problems while Christie bathes in them. She’s hog-tied by NJEA’s allegiance to happy-talk, hobbled by her inability to directly address the deep inequities of N.J.’s public system of education.

The “Et tu” article that Blue Jersey points to by the Philadelphia Inquirer today features Gov. Christie’s embrace by Camden’s Democratic mayor and his trip to Riletta Tywne Cream Family School in Camden yesterday, the same day that Buono unveiled her urban renewal plan. Here’s the Philadelphia Inquirer’s take:

“In an allegory for Buono’s uphill campaign, as she prepared to release her big urban revitalization proposals Christie was in Camden, the state’s poorest and most dangerous city, where he was hugged, kissed and praised by a Democratic mayor. Before TV cameras from Philadelphia stations — and one from the national CBS program Sunday Morning — Camden Mayor Dana Redd described the governor as her bipartisan partner. With Redd’s backing, Christie took over the school system and appointed a new superintendent; with Christie’s backing, Redd disbanded the police department and let Camden County come in to run a new force. In short, on Buono’s day for unveiling how she would help New Jersey’s most vulnerable citizens, Christie got far more media attention for claiming he was already doing just that.”

Here’s a fact, not an allegory: Riletta Tywne Cream Family School, a pre-K through 8th grade school with 536 kids, is a disaster. According to the N.J. Department of Education Performance Report, 84 percent of the children are economically disadvantaged and all minority. The school ranks in the 1st percentile; in other words, 99 percent of N.J. students outpace those stuck in Riletta Tywne, even those from equally impoverished backgrounds. The school fails every target educational goal. 85 percent of third graders fail state proficiency tests in language arts and 79 percent fail math. Most of the other data is “suppressed to protect the confidentiality of students.” This means that just about everyone failed.

But NJEA and, ergo, Buono, have to portray Riletta Tywne’s failure as an anomaly, an emblem of nothing more than a blot on a bucolic landscape. (FYI, there are 22 other traditional public schools in Camden with similar performance records.) Talk about looking at the bright side.

It’s hard to be the agent of change when one is forced to be an agent of blarney. There’s Christie in Camden surrounded by beautiful schoolchildren and a beaming Democratic mayor. There’s Buono in Irvington unveiling her urban revitalization plan and giving a Christie campaign spokesman the opportunity to say, “What’s clear is that on urban issues, and most pressingly failing schools that are predominantly in urban areas, Barbara Buono is a defender of a status quo that is leaving children behind.” No wonder Blue Jersey is blue.


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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