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Opinion: Gov. Big Stick, Meet the Velvet Glove

New Jersey's preferred mode of "negotiation" has already cost us the Race to the Top.

Almost a year ago, New Jersey lost the Race to the Top.

The federal competition awarded large grants -- New Jersey was eligible for $400 million -- to states with clear plans to reform public education, with a specific focus on poor urban school districts. Most of the winning states were able to craft collaborative agreements with their teachers unions.

New Jersey made national headlines with its histrionic antics.

That raises the question: Is it possible to make inroads in chronically failing school districts -- nestled side by side with superb schools -- without warm hugs among stakeholders? It's not a trick question. There are two ways to proceed with education reform: incrementally, through collaborations with unions and school districts, or through legislative edict.

In educational parlance, this is known as the velvet glove vs. the big stick. No bonus points for guessing Jersey's preferred strategy.

First, a little trip down memory lane. New Jersey's Race to the Top draft application in Round 2 was bold and brazen, all big stick and bravado. Controversial measures like merit pay, changes to tenure laws, and tying teacher evaluations to student growth would be legislated, not negotiated.

Union officials instructed local units to refuse to sign on the line.

But then former Education Commissioner Bret Schundler pulled on the velvet glove and invited New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) bosses to join him in a few verses of "Kumbaya."

Together they spawned a compromise document that sacrificed some sacred reform tenets but achieved union buy-in. In exchange, the NJEA made several important concessions, like permitting higher salaries for teachers willing to teach in high-poverty districts. While nixing merit pay for individual instructors, the union okayed school-wide bonuses for improved student achievement and the incorporation of student growth into teacher evaluations.

Schundler exulted. "We are extremely pleased that the 200,000-member NJEA has agreed to endorse our application and its bold reform agenda designed to improve education in New Jersey." An NJEA spokeswoman saluted the "collective victory," and advised that all local unions would sign off on our application.

And then came Christie and his big stick.

The governor exploded in anger at the prospect of a lily-livered education reform agenda. He swapped the compromise application for the original document. When we submitted our application to the feds, one half of one percent of local unions had signed on.

We made it to the final round, but we lost the competition. Federal reviewers noted a number of problems with our application (incomplete DOE data systems, lack of support for charter schools) but singled out the stark disapproval of the NJEA and the long odds of achieving meaningful reform without union buy-in.

Schundler was given his walking papers. High Statehouse drama over a minor clerical error made for good theater but little relevance. And here we are, a year later, education reform still a hot topic, but not as hot as the fierce antipathy between NJEA members and Gov. Christie.

To further complicate things, just last month the legislature passed a historic reform package requiring higher contributions from state workers, including teachers, for health and pension benefits.

The result is a slew of politicians hell-bent on placating irate union members. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), after calling our esteemed governor a “rotten prick,” announced that bills for teacher merit pay and seniority reform were "dead on arrival." Last week Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) indicated that she won’t even bring the Opportunity Scholarship Act (the voucher bill) up for a vote.

The truth is that the reform measures that are likely to pass the legislature -- linking student growth to teacher evaluations, higher pay for teachers in Abbott districts, small changes to tenure law -- are the same measures in Bret Schundler’s compromise document. If we had submitted that version to the feds we’d be just where we are now. Except that we’d have that $400 million.

And the moral of our little tale?

It's not as simple as: "Drop the big stick and pick up the velvet glove."

The NJEA’s credibility has been badly damaged over the past year. Its leaders’ resistance to change, ironically, abetted the passage of the pension/benefits reform package. Public unions no longer occupy the high moral ground, as private workers grumble enviously about out-of-sync perks. And Christie is widely regarded as a national hero in education reform circles because of his blustery attention to the systemic failure of our public schools to provide equitable educational opportunities to poor children.

But maybe there’s some middle ground.

The NJEA may be eager to assume a proactive posture in the light of recent events, and acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf is an adept negotiator. Perhaps another rendezvous with union officials could lead to incremental changes in school choice or tweaks to seniority laws.

Sometimes it pays to pick up that big stick with a velvet glove.

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