Opinion: Life in the Democratic Lane

Laura Waters | December 7, 2011 | Opinion
Thanks to education reform, the familiar, well-traveled thoroughfare is a thing of the past

For years, New Jersey’s Democratic Party was like a well-traveled thoroughfare, one with familiar signposts and clearly marked exits and on-ramps. But something has interfered with the expected flow of traffic, transforming that accustomed (and even reassuring) road into a three-lane highway — complete with breakdown lane.

What force is behind this transformation? Education reform. Issues relating to teacher tenure, data-driven assessment, and school choice continue to confound consensus among card-carrying Democratic officials. Witness, for example, the wilting of the current lame duck session, chock-full of education bills, many (not all) thoughtful and well-balanced. But it’s tough to achieve consensus on divisive issues.

This split within New Jersey’s Democratic Party on issues pertinent to public education is slowly starting to be reflected in the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) itself. Like the blue side of the Statehouse, the NJEA was in years past a monolithic megaphone for New Jersey’s public school teachers and other school employees, a reliable conduit for shared beliefs. Recently, however, a few new groups have emerged around the edges that don’t share the same lock-step slate and diverge from the NJEA’s platform on hot-button reform issues.

But first, let’s take a bird’s-eye view of some representatives as they cruise along the Democratic turnpike. Rolling down the right lane is Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union), a staunch advocate for public employee unions, a Democrat of the old cloth, and (as an example of this ilk) a sponsor of a bill that would confer tenure benefits on nontenured school employees.

In the left lane is Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), an ardent supporter of school choice, sponsor of the Opportunity Scholarship Act (the voucher bill), and survivor of an NJEA-funded campaign to unseat him during last June’s primary.

Cruising down the middle lane are legislators like Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), architect of an education reform bill that eliminates lifetime job security for teachers, incorporates student growth into teaching evaluations, and supports improved instruction through professional development.

Now let’s shift over to the NJEA’s constituency for a look at a similar divergence of views. A fledgling organization called the New Jersey Teacher Activist Group (NJTAG) offers an agenda that deviates from NJEA’s cautious concessions to advocates of tenure reform and data-driven instruction. NJTAG’s website lists various antidotes to education reform tenets, calling for the elimination of standardized tests and “a vision of education that counters the multiple forms of oppression, promotes democratic forms of participation [community activism] in our society and that generates spaces of love and hope.” NJTAG also demands “increased funding for public schools” and deplores data-driven teacher evaluations, like those proposed in Ruiz’s bill.

All the way over to the left is a nascent group of teachers who subscribe to a completely different platform than NJTAG. While there’s no formal union as such, their views are reflected in groups like Democrats for Education Reform (Newark), Better Education For Kids (New Brunswick), and the expanding Teach for America, which currently trains teachers for classrooms in Passaic, Orange, Paterson, Newark, Camden, and Elizabeth. (Recent estimates project that by 2015 25 percent of all new teachers in 60 of America’s struggling school districts will be TFA corps members.)

There is actually an alternative union, Educators For Excellence, which promotes “an elevated, prestigious teaching profession in which educators are leaders both in and outside of their classrooms to drive positive outcomes for students.” Its website includes a rubric for lay-offs that disregards seniority, a proposal for a merit-based pay structure, and a teacher evaluation system that incorporates student growth. While there is no formal branch in New Jersey, founder Evan Stone is fielding inquiries from the Garden State and expects to expand.

Like the education-related challenges to the unity of the Democratic Party at the Statehouse, the NJEA is faced with a kind of internecine conflict, a shearing off of both the slowpokes in the right lane and the road warriors in the left. But conflicts can be opportunities too. Sure, it was fun being a monolith. No doubt Statehouse Democratic legislators wax nostalgic over the good old days of reliable allegiances, but they’re not likely to be recaptured, at least in the arena of education reform. The challenge for both legislative and union leaders is to resist dogma from both yea- and nay-sayers, seek inclusion of all stakeholders, and stay awake at the wheel.

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