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Opinion: Saving the NJEA from Itself

These days, Democrats are all about education reform. The teachers union needs to get with the program.

What's wrong with this picture?

Last week Democratic heavyweight George Norcross got up on a stage with Gov. Chris Christie to announce that not only does he support the Opportunity Scholarship Act (the voucher bill) but also he’s opening charter schools Camden.

To add to the cognitive dissonance, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) joined forces with the nepotistic Elizabeth school board to campaign against Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), the former chair of the NJ Democratic party -- and the chief sponsor of the school voucher bill.

To muddy matters further, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), a steadfast ally of the teachers union, looks likely to overcome her initial opposition to a health and pension benefits reform bill -- despite protestations from NJEA leaders. The legislation would require public employees, including teachers, to contribute substantially more than the current 1.5 percent of base pay toward pension and healthcare premiums. (The Assembly Budget Committee just announced it will hear the bill on Monday.)

These reversals of fortune for the beleaguered union are not mitigated by the oft-repeated statistic that the NJEA spent more than $6.6 million last year on TV spots, print ads and billboards. Now the NJEA is using members’ dues to tow banners over the Jersey Shore stamped "Millionaires for Christie.com," while startled beach-goers wonder if the irony is in the medium or the message.

Note to the NJEA: It's time for a strategy makeover.

First, a primer on party affiliations:

  • President Obama, an education reform advocate, is a Democrat
  • U.S. Education Commissioner Arne Duncan, architect of the federal Race To The Top, is a Democrat
  • Chris Cerf, Gov. Christie’s choice for Commissioner of the NJ Department of Education, is a Democrat
  • Rev. Reginald T. Jackson, director of the New Jersey Black Minister's Council and staunch voucher and charter school supporter, is a Democrat
  • Andrew Cuomo, the New York governor who just announced legislation to raise the retirement age for public workers and lower benefits is -- you guessed it -- a Democrat

In both policy and politics, education reform is neither red nor blue. It's purple.

Yet the NJEA’s lobbyists and spokespeople appear conditioned to defend the status quo with Pavlovian predictability. Thus, the NJEA finds itself perennially crouched in a defensive posture. That’s not particularly useful in pressing a specific agenda. If the NJEA wants to retain its renowned power at the Statehouse, it must start playing offense. It’s time to eschew anachronistic slogans for 21st century strategies. Here are three suggestions:

  • While the NJEA’s publicity propounds that "high-quality public charter schools" are "one component of an innovative, progressive system of public education," the union seems to spend a lot of time deriding these autonomous public schools, even those in districts suffering from decades of educational neglect. Get out in front of the issue and announce a pilot program of NJEA-sponsored charter schools. Your sister union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), did the same thing in New York City years ago and won accolades. Consider teaming up with the Education Law Center to create rigorous, inclusive programming with unionized teachers in one of our Abbott districts. Show New Jersey how to do it right.

  • Propose a merit pay program for your colleagues willing to teach in Abbott districts. No education reform initiative ever dreamed of can approximate the value of a great teacher in the classroom. However, our neediest districts struggle to retain our best educators. In New Jersey, the average percentage of classes not taught by highly qualified teachers is a praiseworthy 0.3 percent. In Camden, it’s 16.5 percent. Show the Department of Education that the NJEA is able to create a framework that offers incentives for great teachers willing to work in our most challenging classrooms.

  • NJEA President Barbara Keshishian should propose an annual 2 percent cap on salary increases. Over 70 percent of a typical district’s budget is dedicated to salary and benefits. Last year’s legislation capped annual budget increases at 2 percent. Staff contracts that specify salary increases higher than 2 percent can only be paid for through cuts in instructional programs, extracurricular activities, supplies or overhead. That’s a no-win scenario for local bargaining units and the NJEA’s public image. Take the high road and offer to keep salary increases within legislated limits. Everyone -- red, blue, and purple -- will applaud your largesse.

Think of it this way: the number of charter schools in NJ is only going up. The children in our poorest schools -- full funding or not -- need great teachers. Salary increases are not going to return to 4 percent or 5 percent per year. That leaves the NJEA’s leadership with two choices: one, fight the inevitable and remain on the defensive. Two, respond to this challenging environment by recreating your relevance. A little leadership in the educational arena goes a long way.

It sure beats flying banners over the shoreline.

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