Class Warfare- New Jersey Style

The Democratic Party and its leadership have engaged in textbook class warfare over a variety of issues.  Their primary vehicle is through the tax code and intentions to let the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of the year.  This, they claim, will force the rich to pay even more of their fair share.  Their definition of “fair share” is interesting in light of the fact that the top 1% of the population pay 37% of the income tax.  The top 10% of earners pay 68% of income taxes.  Meanwhile, the bottom 50% pay 3% of all income taxes.  But, their rhetoric plays well to the masses.  I am no aologist for the wealthy (not being one- I live in New Jersey), but soaking the rich for political gain is nothing more than crass class warfare- or socialism, if you will.

Look at the rhetoric over the recent financial crisis and even more recently, banking regulation reform.  We frequently hear from Democrats something along the line of “Wall Street versus Main Street” instead of “Wall Street along with Main Street.”  Democratic operatives are so great at deciphering alleged code words for racism in political dialogue, but not so great at deciphering code words for class warfare.  That is because they are so blind to the facts that they actually believe what they say.  All the cute sound bites and slogans are nothing but that- pitting the evil rich and their corporations (and God forbid if its a bank) against the rest of us.

But all that is being turned on its head in New Jersey as Republican Governor Chris Christie has taken on the public employee unions and the powerful teacher’s union, the NJEA.  Instead of the rich against the rest of us, it is the bloated unions against the rest of us, namely- tax payers.

New Jersey is notorious for two things- being the most heavily taxed states in the country and corruption.  Sometimes, the two are synonymous.  Out of fiscal reality, Christie has made some tough budget cuts to balance the budget which is mandated under the State Constitution.  The one cut that got under the skin of the NJEA is education cuts.  First, a few facts about education funding in New Jersey.  The majority of funding for schools comes not from the State, but from the local property taxes.  Second, a large proportion of State education fuding is directed to the so-called Abbott school districts.  These are traditionally low-performing schools that lie in poor areas with declining property tax bases.  To see how this funding formula work, in my hometown, the State spends about $4,000 per pupil to turn out an average student according to State testing guidelines.  Conversely, they spend over $20,000 per student in the Camden school district (an Abbott district) to produce a considerably below average student- if they even make it to the 11th grade.  That stems from the Democratic credo that throwing money at a problem solves that problem.  Camden is Exhibit A of how ludicrous that policy truly is.  Third, there are more school districts in New Jersey than Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland combined.  Fourth, New Jersey teachers are among the highest paid in the country ranking only behind those in California, but not by much.  Fifth, despite declining K-12 enrollment in public schools over the past decade, the number of teachers has increased.

When Christie’s budget was announced, the NJEA immediately attacked stating that he was attacking our most “vulnerable citizens…our children” in a series of television commercials.  The ink was barely dry on the budget address before these commercials started airing to the tune of $300,000 per week on the part of the NJEA.  And what are Christie’s alleged faults?  He asked for a one-year pay freeze for teachers- not pay cut, not renegotiation of contracts, not a permanent pay freeze or cut.  Oh…and he asked them to pay 1.5% of their annual salaries towards their health care benefits.  For the teacher in New Jersey making the median salary of about $66,000, that amounts to $990 per year.  At roughly half that salary working in the private sector, I pay over $4,100 towards health care (or 12% of my salary).

Hopefully, many readers have heard of Christie’s classic exchange with the teacher from Kearny who lamented that given her education and using some bizarre formula, she should be making $83,000 per year.  When Christie told her she was when benefits and pension was factored in, she persisted in her twisted argument to which Christie basically told her to go find a new job that paid $83,000 per year.  Never mind the fact that she was revealed to be a hypocritical liar with regards to her salary- she makes somewhere near the $83,000 per year not including health and pension benefits.  Christie’s point was that a teacher can pay $100,000 into their pension fund over the life of employment and receive over $1.5 million in retirement benefits- not counting health care for that teacher and their family.

So Christie called the bluff of the NJEA on two fronts.  Despite the media blitz by the union and the infamous lamenting on YouTube by a teacher wishing death upon the Governor, despite allthe bickering on the editorial pages between teachers and citizens, Christie promised to restore full State funding to any school district that adopted his standards- a one-year pay freeze and 1.5% contribution to health care benefits.  After all, the union was only looking out for the best interests of the State’s “most vulnerbale citizens…our children.”  As of this date, about 25 of the state’s greater than 570 school districts have accepted the deal in the name of the best interests of the children.  That represents 4.3% of all school districts.  So it would appear that the NJEA cannot put their money where their mouth is.

Then he challenged the electorate, which happens to consist of property tax payers as well as teachers, to reject bloated proposed school budgets at the local level.  This is mandated in that citizens vote on school budgets.  If approved, then all is fine.  If not, they are returned to the municipality for adjustments.  The result is that more than two-thirds of all school budgets in New Jersey were rejected by the masses.  They were sent back to the municipalities for cuts.  While some teachers will lose their jobs as the result of these cuts, thus far the primary losers are classroom aids, sports and music programs.

But now comes along another chance for the NJEA to restore some school funding, this time from the federal government.  New Jersey has the opportunity to get over $400 million in federal grants as part of the Race to the Top program.  Part of the proposal involved merit pay and tenure.  It appeared that the State reached an agreement with the NJEA on both issues and was to submit the application to Washington.  In the agreement reached, merit pay would be on a school-wide basis, not individual basis.  That is, say the criteria for merit pay was a hypothetical score of 80 on some objective criteria.  If 4 teachers scored a 100 and one teacher scored a 20, the school average would be 84 and all five teachers would receive merit pay- even the teacher scoring a 20.  The second agreement reached was that as concerns layoffs, tenure or seniority would be the deciding factor in those decisions despite the performance of the students or the effectiveness of the teachers involved.  On these points, the NJEA claimed victory.

Except for one problem.  The agreement was negotiated and reached with Education Commissioner Brett Schundler, not Governor Christie.  Christie’s response was no negate the agreement and publicly chastise Schundler.  A new proposal was submitted to the Federal government more in line with the goals of actually rewarding good teachers and getting rid of bad teachers.  The NJEA’s response?  Once again, they claimed Christie was putting politics and personal philosophy above the interests of the children of New Jersey.

As a result of all this, the NJEA has proven that they have only the interests of themselves- not the children- at heart.  In fact, Christie, by taking on the NJEA, has directly taken on a powerful, rich, special interest group whose number one goal is self-perpetuation.  Recently, public workers unions, including the NJEA, marched on Trenton 35,000 strong.  They warned that any Democrats who went along with Christie’s policies would be targeted come election time.  They were branded “accomplices.”  What Christie has done is turn class warfare on its head, stealing a page from the Democratic play book.  It is the teacher’s union- the NJEA- against the rest of us- the tax payers who foot the bill of these sweetheart contracts.

I have nothing against teachers.  I do it myself as a substitute teacher.  I realize the job is difficult.  And I have no problem with anyone, including a teacher, making a six-digit salary if they really deserve it.  I have a problem as a tax payer being forced to pay exhorbitant property taxes to pay the salaries of certain people who produce students who cannot spell, write a coherent sentence, figure out the perimeter of a square and who do not even know how to wear a pair of pants correctly or use a belt.  If they are worth it, then pay them accordingly.  But across the board pay increases despite classroom performance- good or bad- makes no sense.  Nor does the fact that teachers contribute absolutely nothing towards their health care benefits.  Their cries fall on deaf ears of the majority of the electorate who pay taxes, work long days, and pay 12% of their salaries to health care for their family.  Christie has pitted a special interest- the NJEA- which is closely allied with the Democratic Party (check out who they contribute to in elections) against the rest of us- the honest working tax payers of New Jersey.  Class warfare at its best…New Jersey style.  Finally, we have a Governor willing to take on the beast and he is winning the battle.