Get Ready for More Garden State Fireworks

  There have been some recent editorials circulating in New Jersey newspapers that Republican Governor has a chance to “repair the relationship” with the state’s largest teacher union- the NJEA.  Methinks they underestimate and do not really get the fact that Chris Christie is not Jon Corzine or any other Democratic governor of New Jersey (or even some past Republican governors).  As many readers are aware, Christie rankled the rank-and-file of the NJEA and most public workers unions in the state in an effort to reign in spending and close the huge budget gap.  He slashed half a billion dollars from spending on education that led to “death prayers” on Facebook from a teacher and that now well-documented smackdown of a teacher in Northern Jersey.  He had the audacity to tell schools to use surpluses.  And then told them not to look for the shortfalls at the local level through property tax rebates.  Two-thirds of school budgets were defeated in May.  The result is that Christie essentially won round 1 with the NJEA.

    Round 2 was a prelude to round 3.  In this round, his Education Commissioner, Brett Schundler, negotiated an agreement with the NJEA for a federal Race to the Top grant estimated at over $400 million.  The key sticking points were tenure and merit pay.  In the negotiated agreement, merit pay was to be based more or less on a team basis, rather than individual basis.  That is, if the school performed well, then all the teachers received merit-based bonuses.  With tenure, the “reform” negotiated was essentially the status quo- tenure would be the primary basis for layoffs or personnel changes, not teacher or even student performance.  Since this entailed neither merit pay nor tenure reform in the commonsense notion, something Christie seems to understand, he negated the deal and sent off a grant application more in line with his thinking; that is, commonsense.  Along the way, he publicly chastised Schundler, who later apologized.  Of course, the NJEA removed their support for the application and all the liberals in New Jersey are screaming that Christie jeopardized the grant in the name of politics.  They assume that NJEA support is a necessary prerequisite because that is the thinking of liberals.  It was not jeopardized in the name of politics; it was negated in the name of principle, something I do not believe his critics quite understand or are capable of understanding.

    Round three will play out this summer when his educational reform package is released.  If his transition team’s suggestions are any indication, there will be no truce involved.  Besides revamping funding for public schools, there will be expansion of charter schools with the addition of up to ten especially targeted for low-performing districts.  Until 2003, the local school board’s, when contract negotiations reached an impasse, were permitted to institute it’s last best offer.  Christie wants to restore this commonsense solution into the collective bargaining process.  If the NJEA leadership had any brains, they would accept this concept- they will get something, just not everything they want.  He wants to eliminate over 215 pages of State regulations that add nothing but paperwork to the educational process with no results in the classroom.  In order to address a teacher shortage, he wants to institute certification reciprocity with other states.  If they are good enough to teach in Pennsylvania, why go through the whole certification process again in New Jersey?  Again, more commonsense that will be fought by the NJEA.

    To illustrate the absurdity of the current system, the state wanted to institute high school programs that taught rudimentary economics and “financial literacy.”  Sounded like a great idea at the time, given the financial meltdown and all.  In New Jersey, it took no less than three state agencies or commissions to fight not only what would be taught but when it would be implemented.  And that was not counting the Department of Education.  Christie’s solution?  Incorporate this curriculum in existing courses.  Many years ago, I learned how the stock market worked IN SIXTH GRADE MATH CLASS!! 

    Addressing the role of testing in New Jersey, Christie wants to place less emphasis on standardized testing for passing high school especially, and at other levels.  Essentially, he would replace the state-administered HSPPA for high schools with final exams at all high school levels.  It is done with great success at the college level, why not high schools?  The idea is that there would be less “teaching to the test” and more teaching to the curriculum.

     His plans note that turn over among administration is subject to the school boards.  Although there is no tenure for superintendants, they also lack job security that adversely impacts long-term planning.  As school board membership changes, so does school administration.  What a novel idea to break that turn over cycle, or more appropriately, a commonsense solution.  He also wants to institute a system where political considerations are removed from the teacher hiring process.  Today, you may have a teacher certificate and be an absolutely horrendous teacher, but if you are the relative or even vague acquaintance of a school board member, you have the inside track.  Part of that is because the pressure placed on superintendants by school board members.  Remove that pressure and people will be hired based on ability, not politics.  If you think that doesn’t happen then you don’t live in New Jersey because I have seen it firsthand.  And speaking of tenure, teachers would not be granted tenure after three years continuous service, but rather five years.  That would grant administration a greater amount of time to evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of teachers- and to help make corrections as necessary- and mitigate the costs involved with removing tenured, ineffective teachers (yes! they exist).  Incidentally, teacher evaluations would be results-oriented, not process oriented.  That teacher with the master’s degree that Christie smacked down would not necessarily cut it under Christie’s plan if her students under-perform.  Hence, 51% of the criteria for a teacher evaluation and/or tenure would be based on student performance.  Radical, isn’t it?  Only in New Jersey can commonsense be labeled “radical.”

    Then of course there are the merit pay provisions that would reward effective teachers- not whole schools.  New Jersey’s special education requirements are much more onerous than those established at the Federal level.  Without “dumbing down”- unless that is what the Federal standards are in the first place- he wants to amend those requirements to make them more in line with these federal standards.  With school facilities and construction- something the NJEA constantly argues about (they need the best resources to do their job)- State regulations impose cumbersome and expensive regulations.  For example, for any project exceeding $2,000, the prevailing wage for that construction must be paid- even if that “prevailing wage” exceeds national standards, adds to the cost of a project, and circumvents the “lowest bidder” concept!  And finally there is the need for arbitration reform and the elimination of NJEA-backed supereconciliation which adds another layer of arbitration.  Currently, arbitrators- in contract disputes involving pay- look at the wages of surrounding districts.  For example, if the teachers in school district A want annual increases of 4% and the district offers 2%, the logical arbitration decision would be maybe 3%.  Not in Jersey!  Here the arbitrator considers what teachers in neighboring district B are making and could increase district A’s pay more than the original 4% to bring them into line with district B’s. 

    The final piece of the puzzle, and the one that will produce the most vitriol from the NJEA, will be a school voucher proposal, or as Christie calls it, “per-pupil portability.”  There are success stories with school vouchers, where they exist, and there are horror stories.  At best, the jury is still out.  However, as even liberals will agree, States are laboratories for policy innovation.  under the plan, if a school spends $11,000 per pupil and that student underperforms, parents would be offered the opportunity to transfer that child to a privately run school and receive a stipend of $11,000.  Almost humorously, “per pupil portability” sounds like liberal double-speak.  He wants to do this first in low-performing districts.

     So far from there being a truce between the NJEA and Christie, the Governor is upping the ante.  Ironically, all these proposals are commonsense solutions that increase efficiency, address needs, lower costs, improve choice, challenge the status quo and royally piss off the teacher’s union (the NJEA).  No doubt, teacher union dues will be directed to multi-million dollar campaigns to educate the public that they- not Christie- have the only the interests of the students at heart.  They will portary Christie as the big, mean ogre eating children and spitting them out with his proposals.

     The NJEA does so at its own risk.  They lost the budget battle.  They lost the local school budget battle.  They lost the Race-to-the-Top grant battle.  This is not Jon Corzine or Jim McGreevey or Jim Florio sitting in the Governor’s mansion.  This is a man- not a politician- on a mission to start the job he was elected to do.  He is not beholden to the NJEA or AFT.  Again, I have no problem with teachers being paid handsomely provided they prove their worth and their salary.  But, despite having the third highest median salaries in the country, student performance is simply average.  New Jersey spends more on a per-pupil basis than 48 other states for “average.”  Several states that spend less per-pupil and, ironically, have budget surpluses, get better results on the NEAP in reading, math and science than New Jersey.  This will create even more fireworks in New Jersey as the debate rolls on pitting commonsense against the teacher’s union.  Hopefully, the students of the State will end up the winners.  And one can win through commonsense reform.