Christie Begins Cleanup: Starts With The 200,000-Member Strong New Jersey Education Association

Untitled(Photo of Bret Schundler-nominated to run of Department of Education) Sitting in his transition office a few block from the state capitol in Trenton, Chris Christie was in full battle mode today, like a boxer who couldn’t wait to climb into the ring and start pounding away. In fact, he wasn’t waiting. His target: The 200,000-member strong New Jersey Education Association, the most muscular special interest group in town. “They spent $3 million in public dues money trying to beat me, and they didn’t,” he said of the union. “Forget the 20th century, these folks are back in the 19th century in terms of their thinking.”

The union had just announced its opposition to a $400 million federal grant application it feared would open the door to merit pay. And with the state on the edge of bankruptcy, that was clearly driving the next governor nuts.

“Of course they don’t like that,” he said. “Because it would demand some accountability from their members.”

Christie threw the first jab earlier in the day by appointing as education commissioner former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, a national leader in the movement for school vouchers and a long-time nemesis of the NJEA.

Brace yourself. The days of timid leadership in New Jersey are over.

“They (voters) didn’t pick me because they were looking for a subtle approach,” he says. “So, here it comes.”

When you listen to Christie spell out his agenda, you see a million political brawls breaking out over the next few years.

Cops and firefighters must agree to lower salaries and benefits, he says, or towns should impose layoffs. Some lower-income families will have to be kicked out of state health programs because we can’t afford to carry them. And cities like Newark that have grown accustomed to state bailouts need to make other plans, he says.

There are a lot of sacred cows in there.

But for the teachers union, Christie is sharpening his spear to an even finer point.

Christie wants merit pay for teachers. He wants many more charter schools. He wants to use tax dollars for private school scholarships, a voucher plan with a fig leaf disguise. And he wants teachers, like cops and firefighters, to agree to lower salaries and skimpier benefits or face layoffs.

“I’m on the side of kids and parents in this state who want better education, especially in our urban areas,” Christie says. “I’m tired of people who are protecting only their parochial interests. This is a fight I will not shy away from.”

For the teachers union, the 200,000-strong New Jersey Education Association, Christie’s agenda reads like a nightmare. They have fought each of these reforms for years in Trenton, winning every round. They were the big dog in the capitol, and both parties learned to obey.

But things are changing. Many Democrats, including President Obama, favor merit pay and expansion of charter schools. And because urban schools are still struggling, a growing number of black Democrats in New Jersey favor school vouchers, including Newark Mayor Cory Booker and the Rev. Reginald Jackson, head of the Black Minister’s Council.

The NJEA’s grip over education policy, in other words, is slipping. They are standing still, trying to block these reforms, while the world around them changes.

“I am reminded that Rip Van Winkle slept through a revolution,” Jackson said today as he endorsed the Schundler appointment. “I think the NJEA will be left behind.”

That would be good news for education reform. The NJEA’s opposition to the $400 million federal grant will probably sink our chances of getting that money. It’s a competitive grant, and union support is one of the criteria for success.

The union argues that accepting this grant would moves the state toward a system of merit pay by tying teacher evaluations, in part, to student performance on tests.

That’s what inspired Christie’s comment about 19th century thinking.

The NJEA is not hitting any of these hostile notes, so far. In an interview today Barbara Keshishian, the union president, sounded shell-shocked, as if unable to quite comprehend this new world.

“We’re hopeful we can establish a working relationship,” she said. “I’m really not sure what his education agenda is.”

Really? You have to wonder then about that $3 million they spent in the election and those thousands of volunteers. If the NJEA doesn’t know what Christie’s agenda is, what exactly were they fighting so hard against?

The NJEA still has plenty of power. Roughly 90 percent of the legislators they endorsed in November’s election won. They have money and manpower, and they are a presence in every district. Some of the items on Christie’s agenda, like cutting back benefits, are controlled mostly at the local level where the NJEA’s power is almost unchallenged.

Still, the political map has changed. And besides Jon Corzine, no one emerged from November’s election a bigger loser than the NJEA.

Christie knows that. And he’s an aggressive fellow who is certain to press that advantage hard. Star Ledger.

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  1. Nj govt would save soooooo much money if they closed the public schools and gave vouchers . the average cost to taxpayers educate a child in public is 16,000. Tuition in lakewood nj average private 4,500. u do the math . plus all the pensions and other goodies .plus the lifetime deals . my friends we are robbed by the nea. and it would be one thing if we were producing top notch students who are contributing to society, but we aren’t .. NJ kids have the lowest scores in the country.PS Brett Schundler is an excellent choice. Now a few more steps which may help is A: the consolidation of Boe’s around the state(take ours Pleeese) and but this won’t happen , only accepeting Legal documented immigrants .

  2. Many teachers would actually support merit pay if there was a fair way to do it. The problem is that you cannot fairly hold teachers solely accountable, for their pay, for the performance of other people. I could teach some students until I’m blue in the face, but if they aren’t motivated, or just aren’t strong academically, then their achievement is going to be limited. If there are other criteria than just test scores, and if there is a way to mitigate the possibility of office politics entering the equation, then I would support merit pay.

  3. merit pay would be great except that what if the kids are just real dumb – it’s not the teacher’s fault that he/she was assigned that class.
    also, it leaves a lot of room for discrimination – such as if the principal does not like a certain teacher for a reason unrelated to their teaching abilities, they will not get a raise. There has to be a set protocol so everyone can have a chance to try their best.

  4. The unions are destroying this country. Look at Detroit. It is a breath of fresh air to have a politician talking about this. They don’t because it is liek a chasidus you get the rebbe to endorse you and you can rely on 10,000 people to vote for you. Politicinas know it and don’t want to make any changes. Christie for President! keep it going!!!

  5. Christie is seeking vengeance on the teacher’s bc they voted against him. I do agree their needs to be some give and take between NJ and the Unions but to scale back pay on a teacher who is making 45,000 and then make them pay for benefits is quite a slap in the face. Merit pay is useless and no one else in the working world uses that model. Paying into benefits should happen and the pension system is all screwed up because they invested in risky portfolios and it needs to be totally revamped so that tax payer dollars aren’t being used to fix their mistakes. In all reality Christie can say whatever he wants but it is put up to a vote and the NJEA has majority political backing right now. There will be some give and take but he will not end the unions otherwise the state of NJ will have no teacher’s, cops or firefighters. So is the whole state going to shut down? He won’t be able to get all of this into effect.

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