Why New Jersey’s teachers’ union is on the sidelines in this Senate race

 Newark Mayor Cory Booker, left, looks on as Newark Southward Councilman Ras Baraka talks during a news conference, Wednesday, March 27, 2013, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, left, looks on as Newark Southward Councilman Ras Baraka talks during a news conference, Wednesday, March 27, 2013, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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

With less than four weeks until New Jersey’s primary election for U.S. Senate, the latest Monmouth University poll shows that 49 percent of likely voters support Cory Booker, a lead that Monmouth pollster Patrick Murray calls “impregnable.” Fellow Democrats Frank Pallone, Rush Holt, and Sheila Oliver garner anywhere from an anemic 12 percent to a moribund 3 percent. Rush Holt comes in at 8 percent.

U.S. Congressman Holt’s middle-of-the-losers status is rankling his new consultant Bob Braun, who this week unleashed a tirade at N.J.’s primary teachers’ union, NJEA. Braun, a 50-year veteran of the Star-Ledger and faithful labor union lackey, is appalled that traditional public school lobbyists have failed to endorse any candidate, let alone Holt. NJEA typically issues endorsements for U.S. Senate candidates – in 2008 it endorsed the late Frank Lautenberg (whose open seat is in contention) and in 2012 it endorsed Bob Menendez.

For Braun, NJEA’s uncharacteristic passivity this election cycle is indefensible because Booker is a proponent of school vouchers, a controversial plan that would allow parents to use state money for private and parochial school tuition. NJEA hates vouchers and Braun bridles at the union’s failure to interfere with Booker’s coronation. He attributes NJEA’s silence to cowardice:

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“The NJEA could make a real difference in this primary. It has the chance to strike a blow against vouchers nationally by repudiating Cory Booker, one of the staunchest champions of the effort to rob public schools of needed resources.

Too bad it wants to be Bert Lahr’s lion instead. New Jersey’s teachers deserve better. New Jersey’s schools deserve better. New Jersey deserves better.”

Is NJEA’s reticence so easily dismissed as an affinity with the Cowardly Lion?  Or does NJEA have a different strategy in mind?

I vote for the latter.  In fact, NJEA’s leadership may be rooting for Booker, vouchers and all. If Booker leaves Newark, then someone else gets to be Newark’s mayor. And that person is likely to be Ras Baraka, Newark City Council member, principal of Newark’s Central High School, rap artist, son of famous anti-Semite Amiri Baraka, and ardent opponent of education reform strategies such as school choice, tenure reform, and accountability.

Booker, of course, is a valiant education reformer and a big supporter of Newark’s progressive school superintendent Cami Anderson. NJEA’s leadership would far prefer Booker safely ensconced in D.C.; after all, his commitment to transforming poor urban school districts (not to mention his habit of rushing into burning buildings and tweeting about it) is largely responsible for the $100 million Facebook grant that has ushered in a coterie of reforms opposed by NJEA. (Newark’s teachers are represented by a branch of the American Federation of Teachers, NEA’s sister union.)

Compared to Booker, Baraka is as non-threatening as a bowl of jello.

Baraka, in fact, was a leader in the Newark City Council’s approval in May of a moratorium on all public school initiatives. He told the Star-Ledger, “There have been serious decisions that have been made that will affect this community for decades and have no basis in research or empirical data.”

On the website Baraka2014, the mayoral hopeful writes, “increasing the number of charter schools and/or vouchers programs, or eliminating tenure are not strategies that will yield sustainable positive outcomes for our children or communities. He adds, “decisions to close schools, eliminate tenure, co-locate, and proliferate charter school are based in false assumptions about our communities’ needs and our students competency.” And, “We need a moratorium on these policies in order to allow time for a thorough investigation of the impacts on students, schools, and whole communities.”

In other words, the future mayor of Newark is a politician resolutely opposed to basic tenets of education reform. (He’s also not averse to highly-charged rhetoric. Last year the Star-Ledger awarded him the Knucklehead of the Week award for comparing Cory Booker to a Nazi after a controversial appointment of a new council member.)

Think about it. Booker disappears into the wasteland of the U.S. Senate. His successor, Ras Baraka, staunchly defends NJEA from union-offensive initiatives like vouchers, charter school expansion, merit pay, closure of failing schools, and collaboration with reform-minded superintendents, governors, and philanthropists. As far as NJEA is concerned, it’s a win-win. There’s no cowardice here, only smart strategy.


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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