The New Jersey teachers union is missing a great opportunity

 New Jersey will elect a Senator on Oct 16 to complete the U.S. Senate term of the late Frank Lautenberg.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

New Jersey will elect a Senator on Oct 16 to complete the U.S. Senate term of the late Frank Lautenberg. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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

It’s been a great week for senatorial-hopeful Cory Booker. With two months until the primary on August 13 for the late Senator Frank Lautenberg’s unexpired term, polls show the Newark super mayor well ahead of his two main rivals, Congressmen Rush Holt and Frank Pallone. And then another big break: N.J.’s primary teachers’ union, NJEA, just announced that it will not endorse any candidates for this special election.

Why the silence from this typically loose-lipped organization? Why not endorse Holt, a widely-respected nuclear physicist with a thoughtful and union-friendly education agenda? Or Pallone, who boasts a 100% favorable rating from NEA, NJEA’s parent group? And why would the union pass on an opportunity to challenge Booker, an ardent education reform who holds many positions antithetical to teacher union leadership?

In fact, NJEA’s reticence gives Booker yet another boost: no defensive posturing about his support for public school vouchers and his historical disparagement of teacher tenure, no campaign funds expended on damage control. Holt and Pallone, both in need of reinforcements, are probably feeling sucker-punched by the union’s stolid neutrality. (Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver is a candidate but barely registers a berm across the campaign landscape.)

Either Holt or Pallone would have been a logical choice for NJEA’s endorsement. Both have solid education agendas (see last week’s Newsworks essay for coverage) right in line with NJEA’s: more education funding, careful uptick in standards, smaller class sizes, less emphasis on standardized testing. And both candidates have historically relied on support – money, advertising, feet on the ground — from NJEA and other public workers’ unions.

*Rush Holt on education

*Frank Pallone on education

*Cory Booker on education

Booker’s education agenda, however, is largely anathema to teacher union leadership. He’s been the conduit for the infusion of private money into public schools, enticing $100 million for Newark Public Schools from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg. He’s an ardent proponent of tenure reform, including the elimination of seniority-based lay-offs. He even supports public vouchers for private and parochial schools, a hot-potato issue for many Democrats in the education reform camp.

What about charter schools, NJEA’s own hot-potato issue? Here’s a snippet from a local paper on Booker’s appearance at the 2011 National Charter School Conference: “Charismatic Newark Mayor Cory Booker told the annual National Charter Schools Conference in Atlanta this morning, ‘This room is full of modern-day freedom fighters who refuse to accept what is and demand every day what we know can be.’

In fiery rhetoric suitable for a civil rights rally, Booker called for an end to an achievement gap that he described ‘as wide as the Grand Canyon.’ He applauded an effort by charter schools ‘to transform pitfalls into pools of potential.'”

Does NJEA need another reason to endorse one of Booker’s rivals? Here’s one: Booker is an ally of Gov. Chris Christie, NJEA’s Prince of Darkness. Why miss an opportunity to unveil the true character of the Governor, who is described in one recent NJEA blog post as a politician whose actions are “the height of hypocrisy” and “an insult to everyone’s intelligence,” who is, at heart, a “craven” politician, a “schoolyard bully” and a “coward”?

One could argue that NJEA’s front office took the high road, which in this case was the safe one. Why back a loser? (Remember those polls, where Booker is up about 40 points.) And, even if NJEA officers viewed this not so much as a senate race than a marketing opportunity, how could they pick between Holt and Pallone?

NJEA government relations director Ginger Gold Schnitzer explained this impossible choice to Real Clear Politics, which first broke the story: “This is a really politically complicated situation for organizations like ours because we have good friends running against each other, so there’s no advantage for us to get involved in this primary.” And here’s a clue to the thinking in the back rooms of NJEA from another N.J. union leader, Hetty Rosenstein of the Communication Workers of America: “It’s not inaccurate to talk about the fact that it becomes a very difficult issue when it comes to Pallone versus Holt. It could cause paralysis. But that’s not to say that the CWA will not make a decision because we have a process.”

“Paralysis” is not a very good reason for NJEA’s lack of endorsement. A little action could have provided an occasion to reframe education issues to an attentive public. Count this safe road as a missed opportunity.

The special Senate primary is scheduled for Aug. 13, with a general election Oct. 16.


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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