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Opinion: Gov. Christie’s About-Face on Common Core Takes Page from NJEA

Governor and teachers union are willing to sacrifice student well-being to personal and political gains

laura waters
Laura Waters

Gov. Chris Christie made national headlines recently when he announced that he was reversing his long-term support for the Common Core, a set of state-driven academic standards that lay out what students should know in language arts and math by the end of each grade.

Unmentioned, however, is that while this long-shot presidential hopeful has spent much of his New Jersey governorship lambasting leaders of the NJ Education Association for privileging the jobs of adults over the academic needs of students, he’s now following their playbook page by page.

We’ve heard from commentators that Christie’s retreat from common standards is a cynical effort to placate the right-wing Republican leadership who declaim, as cited by Politico, that “Common Core will be a litmus test for the GOP primary, and that no candidate who supports the standards will become the party’s nominee.”

We’ve heard how Christie’s denouncement of Common Core is impossible and impracticable to reconcile with his continued support for aligned assessments like PARCC.

We’ve heard that Christie’s claim that the standards “simply weren’t working” is flatly untrue because during the last five years local districts have successfully upgraded grade-level objectives to Common Core-levels.

In fact, Christie’s pathetic effort to inject a gasp of air into his flat tire of a campaign appropriates three tactics straight from his nemesis, the NJEA. First, the union’s profligate opt-out-of-PARCC campaign privileges teacher job security over student learning: its success in wealthy suburbs like Christie’s affluent hometown of Livingston (25 percent opt-out rate; 1.3 percent economically disadvantaged students) may sabotage state data collections, clouding New Jersey’s ability to disaggregate student growth.

Second, the NJEA machine disseminates misinformation about PARCC like manure on a corn crop. Finally, the NJEA’s efforts to undermine accountability, disdained by some with access to great schools and applauded by those trapped in failing districts, widens New Jersey’s historic divide between suburban and urban families.

It’s about teacher jobs, not about kids. (To be fair, that’s the role of a labor union.)

Like the NJEA’s efforts to privilege teacher jobs over student growth, Christie’s about-face on the Common Core privileges his personal ambitions over the well-being of New Jersey students. Pity educationally literate GOP candidates because membership into the top-runners’ club, or at least onto the stage at the FOX debates, precludes common-sense reforms that would grant all children access to college and career-readiness grade standards. Among the sprawling crowd of Republican presidential hopefuls, only former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are willing to buck Tea Party Republicans and express commitment to the Common Core.

When Christie was riding high, dad-dancing with Jimmy Fallon and palling around with President Barack Obama on the Jersey Shore, he had the spine (and the approval ratings) to buck the establishment and cheer for, as he said, “aggressive implementation of these standards in partnership with districts” to “ensure that our children have an education that will serve them well in the next stages of their lives.”

But now his presidential prospects have been devastated by Bridgegate and New Jersey’s pension insolvency. The most recent Iowa poll puts him at 4 percent approval of caucus voters. Advisors tell him, or he tells himself, that his moribund campaign can be resuscitated by renouncing one of his signature convictions: providing educational equity of access to all students, regardless of zip code. His career trajectory trumps the educational trajectory of schoolchildren.

It’s about his job, not kids.

Christie’s about-face on Common Core is riddled with factual distortions that mimic NJEA propaganda. He claims that the standards “were developed 200 miles away on the banks of the Potomac River,” not “by New Jersey educators and parents.” But certainly he knows, as former chairman of the Republican Governors Association, that the standards were developed by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers, not the federal government.

Most troubling, however, is Christie’s willingness to exploit a cultural divide that historically undermines New Jersey’s court-driven efforts to provide educational equity. Again, let’s look at the NJEA’s strategy. Robert Pondiscio at the Fordham Institute has wryly suggested that the union-driven opt-out movement could have made it into that old blog called “Stuff White People Like,” and goes on to explore New Jersey’s bifurcation between “affluent white progressives” who make up the bulk of the anti-testers and “low-income and heavily Democratic families of color” who value PARCC’s accountability and transparency.”

After the final round of Common Core-aligned testing last month, despite NJEA’s relentless campaign, most New Jersey’s families opted in. (The exception was the 15 percent of high school students who are permitted until 2019 to substitute SAT and ACT scores for PARCC scores.) But not without damage to the fragile unity of our state, geographically splintered by contiguous segregated school districts -- Millburn next to Newark, Princeton next to Trenton, Cherry Hill next to Camden. We’ve been pulled further apart by dissent over common standards and assessments. This hurts every child, regardless of their district of residence, and confounds parents, teachers, school boards, and administrators.

Christie may have once posited a commitment to “better lives and outcomes” for low-income children, but now they’re collateral damage to his own ambitions. After all, Iowa and New Hampshire, with their mostly white and middle-class populations, look nothing like New Jersey. But that’s where his campaign lives on or dies. So, like the NJEA, he’s willing to play a destructive game that glorifies educationally destructive divisions in order to satisfy his own personal trajectory.

We’re better than that. Christie was once better than that too. Now he’s toast, along with (hopefully) any presidential candidate who thinks that America can fall for a craven scheme that sacrifices the education of low-income children for some sort of provincial mythos. The best that can come of this mess is a conviction from families, suburban and rural, that the small inconvenience of common standards and assessments is dwarfed by our shared commitment to equal educational opportunities.

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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