Opinion: Time for Governor and Teachers to Find Common Ground

Laura Waters | May 12, 2010 | Opinion
Only through execution of long overdue reforms can New Jersey bring equitable educational opportunity to all children in the state

Last Friday afternoon, Education Commissioner Bret Schundler unveiled New Jersey’s second attempt at securing up to $400 million from the federal government through the Race to the Top competition. At a press conference, he loudly proclaimed the Christie administration’s allegiance to the educational reform goals of President Obama, declaring, “Will we tolerate [failing schools] forever? The Obama Administration said we shall not and moral considerations tell us we should not.”

This partisan inversion — a Republican administration aligning itself with a Democratic president and decrying the dismal state of public education for New Jersey’s poorest children — speaks sharply to New Jersey’s education reform scene.

In part, this inversion has been the result of a shift in public perception of the New Jersey Education Association’s leadership, due in large part to adroit rhetoric from Gov. Christie and strategic blunders committed by union bosses. Who else embodies altruistic nobility more than public school teachers? Yet during recent school board budget elections in April, newspapers ceaselessly documented the refusal of local NJEA units to accept salary freezes during a fiscal emergency. Media outlets as far away as California gasped at a memo from the president of the Bergen County Education Association in which he jokingly prayed for the early demise of Gov. Christie. Outraged residents voted down school budgets in droves.

Remember Woody Allen’s movie “Sleeper,” in which a man is cryogenically preserved for 200 years and wakes up in a topsy-turvy world where steak and chocolate are now health foods? NJEA stalwarts must feel like that defrosted time-traveler, unwrapped into a dizzy existence where the noble profession of public school educator incites accusations of greed and lack of professionalism. (That’s the same movie, by the way, where the dislocated hero discovers that civilization was destroyed when “a man by the name of Albert Shanker [the late president of the United Federation of Teachers] got hold of a nuclear warhead.”)

More importantly, NJEA’s leaders have allowed teachers to be wedged into a corner where they appear to be the primary obstacles to improving our worst schools. Rebelling against new fiscal reforms that increase benefit and pension contributions is understandable. Conflating these financial reforms with necessary academic ones is not.

In other words, it’s one thing to fight for income; in fact, it’s the union’s job. (Once again, Albert Shanker: “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”) It’s another thing altogether to fight against improving education for children in failing schools where half the seniors can’t pass a high school exit exam that some say requires just 8th-grade-level skills.

Cementing this perception, this inversion of the archetypal educator, is that only 17 out of 587 local NJEA units signed on to Gov. Corzine’s tepid Race to the Top application, and Commissioner Schundler seems resigned to minimal buy-in for our second try.

This dynamic has created an ironic juxtaposition. On one side we have defenders of the status quo: comfortable legislators; NJEA leaders content with power, generous job security and benefits; residents of cozy hamlets with excellent school districts and high-performing students.

On the other side are critics of the status quo: outraged taxpayers (our per-pupil expenditure is the third highest in the nation); low-income urban parents clamoring for an exit strategy through school choice; and a growing nexus of education reformers charging that our dualistic education system offers top-notch schools to rich kids and chronically failing ones to poor kids.

What’s the road out of this impasse? For starters, NJEA’s leaders need to cede the point that professional accountability is a new standard, not a fad. Linking student learning to teacher effectiveness is their primary objection to our second application, even though our first application received low scores in this category due to lack of rigor. There’s room for movement on how we measure learning, but the concept is here to stay.

Second, Gov. Christie and NJEA President Barbara Keshishian need to elevate their semantics a bit – no more death wishes or drug mules, please – so that we protect the reputations of honorable teachers. Our governor is, after all, a former prosecutor well accustomed to the negotiating table, and he can no doubt find a way for NJEA’s leaders to save face.

Most importantly, we need to put aside irreconcilable differences and keep our eyes on the prize: equitable educational opportunity for children in every corner of New Jersey, from our most privileged suburbs to our most distressed cities. What better way to announce shared commitment than a second Race to the Top application that unites our state government with NJEA’s leaders?

Long-shot? Maybe. But we have an opportunity to coalesce around an effective strategy that executes long overdue reforms.

It’s time for the Big Thaw.

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