NTU Sticks to Own Path on Education Reform

John Mooney | May 13, 2010
Positions of Newark Teachers Union, such as support for merit pay, often put it at odds with NJEA

The Newark Teachers Union has always been the “other” teachers union in New Jersey, big in its own right as the state’s largest local but not the statewide political giant of the New Jersey Education Association.

Part of the national American Federation of Teachers, a separate entity from the NJEA’s National Education Association, the NTU has kept to its own policies and tactics — some combative, some conciliatory.

That has been no clearer than in the last few months as Gov. Chris Christie has gone to war against the NJEA, while the NTU has largely sat on the sidelines and actually supported the governor on a few things.

Most recently, it was his proposal for merit pay for teachers. NTU is also expected to sign onto the state’s application for the controversial federal Race to the Top program.

“I don’t consider the governor an enemy or an enemy of public education,” said Joseph Del Grosso, president of the 5,000-member local for the last 15 years. “I actually have great respect for the governor.”

Different Unions, Different Opinions

That’s not exactly the union fight song these days, as Christie has made deep cuts in state aid to schools and aggressively tried to rewrite work and pension rules for teachers and other public employees.

Has Del Grosso talked to the NJEA about all this? Do they even talk?

“We get along good,” Del Grosso said of the NJEA’s leadership. “But they don’t listen to me.”

Nor does the NJEA really have to. With 200,000 members statewide, it has such a reach into virtually every other district that it can leave its Newark cousin to its own devices.

And the NJEA’s leadership doesn’t seem to pay much heed even now as they strategize the next step in their battle against Christie, including plans for a massive Statehouse rally next week.

“We’re not concerned about a split in the ranks,” said Steve Wollmer, the NJEA’s chief spokesman. “People look at their unions through their different lenses.”

Of the NTU, “They have their policies, and we have ours,” Wollmer said.

It’s not always easy to predict the NTU’s policies. This is the same group that had its own open war with Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who has sought mayoral control of the district and pressed for charter schools. The NTU went so far as erect billboards in 2007 that read “Stop the Killings in Newark,” a brazen jab at the mayor’s crime-fighting claims.

In Del Grosso’s first years as president of the union, right after the state seized control of the district, the NTU practically ran the state’s first appointed superintendent out of the city.

Surprising Stances for a Union?

But while the district remains under state control, the 62-year-old Del Grosso seems to have softened a little — or maybe grown more nuanced in his politics — and embraced some reforms that are not typically union fare.

The NTU’s endorsement of the state’s first Race to the Top application in January was especially notable, just one of 20 locals statewide to sign on after the NJEA openly said it would not back the bid. The lack of union support was cited as chief reason that the application wasn’t even among the finalists.

Del Grosso said he will sign again in the second round, citing both the $400 million that could come to the state but also the provisions for tenure reform and merit pay.

“Most think it’s about the money, but I think there are some good things that we’re already talking about here that I’d like to see on a broader scale,” he said.

Merit pay, for instance, is something Del Grosso said he’d like to see in some of his own district’s lowest performing schools as an incentive for top teachers.

“It can work under the right circumstances,” he said. “I don’t think it should be just about test scores, that’s ludicrous, but a lot of different things …. But we should be able to recognize people who do something extra.”

His position is actually not that surprising, as over the years, the AFT nationally has leaned toward the more progressive ideas than its larger and more conservative NEA counterpart.

More recently, AFT and NEA locals have split on the Race to the Top applications as well, including in Maryland and Colorado.

“We’re watching all over the country, and the AFT and the NEA have been on two different planets, completely different planets,” said Joe Williams, president of Democrats for Education Reform and a long-time follower of school union politics.

“The AFT wants to be in the discussions, while the NEA has just been saying no,” he said.

Standing Firm on Wage Concessions

Still, there are a few things that Del Grosso will say “no” to. Known for its generous contracts where teachers average better than $80,000 a year, NTU hasn’t agreed any wage concessions, as Christie has asked for.

He remains steadfast against private school vouchers and pretty skeptical of charter schools, two major planks in Christie’s platform as well. He said the NJEA’s forceful opposition to vouchers is a “good fight.”

“But I just think it’s a better fight to be talking to the governor,” he said.