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Opinion: NJ’s Teachers Union: Implosion, Irrelevance, or Evolution?

The NJEA’s shift on charter schools is emblematic of its struggles with shifting situation in education -- in the state and beyond

laura waters
Laura Waters

Last Thursday, the New Jersey Senate Education Committee heard testimony on Sen. Teresa Ruiz’s new charter school bill. One of the lobbyists there was New Jersey Education Association President Wendell Steinhauer and as he approached the podium you couldn’t help but feel sorry for the guy. This well-spoken and diplomatic head of NJ’s primary teachers’ union was in a bind, compelled to triangulate between NJEA’s historically consistent support for these independent public schools and a swelling rebellion within union ranks demanding a more combative stance against charters.

Indeed, teacher union leaders like Steinhauer are in an increasingly difficult position. For over a century political alliances have been easy and predictable: teacher unions were umbilically tied to the Democratic Party and, really, moderates of any ilk. But suddenly a more radical faction is forcing union leaders to shift from that safe center and, as Steinhauer did Thursday, testify against sensible updates to charter-school law and other reforms.

That shift is dangerous: Unions run the risk of alienating more moderate members and their Democratic base, including influential NJ legislators like Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), Senator Ruiz (D-Essex), and most national Democrats. They also invite the perception that the mission of teachers unions is less about improving education and more about protecting market share.

For example, in 2010 NJEA President Barbara Keshishian remarked that “public charter schools have been part of the public education landscape in New Jersey” for 15 years and “a well-established part of N.J.’s public school system.” Last Thursday President Steinhauer testified, “the corporatized charter school model ... disenfranchise[s] community members ...We also propose a temporary moratorium on the approval of new charter schools.”

It’s not hard to understand the reasons for that shift in tone from careful support of alternative public schools (where teachers aren’t required to unionize and pay union dues) to harsher language. It’s been a tough few years for teachers unions. The Vergara case this past summer in Los Angeles undermined tenure rights, a pending federal Supreme Court case could make union membership voluntary, and some pension systems like New Jersey’s are insolvent.

According to a recent Gallup poll, public support for teachers unions fell below 50 percent for the first time ever in 2012. According to a recent Harvard/EducationNext survey, the percentage of Americans who see teachers unions as a negative influence on schools and education policy soared to 43 percent, and only 32 percent of the public support tenure. Membership and revenue (almost all from dues) is down, although the NEA and AFT are still the King Kongs of K Street, spending about $700 million per year on lobbying.

Just as worrisome for union leaders is the rapid growth of internal rebel outposts like the Badass Teachers Association (BAT). More locally, Newark Education Workers (NEW), a coalition within the Newark Teachers Union whose delegates just took over the Executive Board on the coattails of Superintendent Cami Anderson’s tin ear, are demanding a more militant stance.

This is not Norman Rockwell’s vision of the American teacher.

At this past summer’s NEA convention, delegates demanded the resignation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s appointee. (Another humiliation: Secretary Duncan didn’t care.) The new president of the NEA, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, told Politico that data-infused teacher evaluations are “the mark of the devil” and while visiting Camden remarked that “we are sitting on something here. We are at more than a crossroads. This is gonna blow.” AFT President Randi Weingarten, who is now recruiting half her membership from other service industries like nursing and healthcare, told her teacher membership, with a wink, that it’s time to be “a little bad ass.”

Closer to home, NEW hollers, “the old guard keeps the local sclerotic, disoriented, and vision-less. Time for Newark teachers to occupy their union!” NJEA endorses rising Democratic star U.S. Senator Cory Booker and irate Bob Braun, a NEW evangelist, wails, “[t]he NJEA endorsement is a propaganda rug woven carefully and deliberately of self-serving and cynical lies. The people who run the union simply cannot be so stupid or delusional or naïve that they don’t recognize what they are doing.”

NEA President Eskelsen Garcia is right: Teachers unions are at a crossroads. Do leaders appease their militant factions by amping up attacks on school choice and accountability while defending archaic teacher-tenure laws? Or do they maintain political influence among Democrats and moderates by accepting decreases in market share through the expansion of non-traditional public school models like charters?

On Thursday Pres. Steinhauer tried to have it both way, but it’s unclear if this triangulation is the best strategy for the NJEA to pursue. In the end, he’s just offering something to offend everybody. NEW- and BAT-aligned members (and a very few legislators) will resent any support for charter schools. Moderate members and most of the Legislature will never impose a moratorium, especially with 20,000 New Jersey students on charter school waiting lists. Still, it’s unfair to lay this all at the feet of President Steinhauer. He’s trapped in an internecine war and right now, if the shift in rhetoric among union leaders is a barometer, the rigid antireform side is winning. That’s bad news for teachers unions, which will continue to move further away from political moderates and most of America. In doing so, they’ll court their own irrelevance.

Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for NJ Spotlight and other publications. She also blogs at NJ Left Behind and has been a school board member in Lawrence Township (Mercer County) for 10 years.

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