It can be hard to figure out the relationship between Gov. Chris Christie and the state’s biggest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association.
In the beginning of his first term, he vilified the union — and vice versa — over budget cuts and pension changes. Then the two worked together developing the state’s tenure reform law, even meeting together for the signing.
Now, he faces the NJEA’s wrath again, over his failure to meet promised pension obligations — earning him a lawsuit from the union.
But quietly over the past two weeks, his administration — including his chief of staff Kevin O’Dowd — worked out a compromise with the union and the Democratic leadership, slowing down the consequences of new national tests tied to the Common Core State Standards.
To some, Christie caved in by agreeing to slow down the process at all. To others, it was the union that buckled and withdrew from its position to press for a full delay of the new tests’ impact on teacher evaluations, the main issue at hand.
And still others see something in between: The union and its Democratic supporters won some concessions, but they also stopped short of the outright delay that has taken place elsewhere.
“It seemed to me a pretty commonsense, proactive compromise,” said Charles Barone, policy director of Democrats for Education Reform, a national reform group with a state office in New Jersey.
“The union pulled Christie back a little, but what’s important is there is a still a plan [to proceed], and not just putting it off and we’ll discuss it later like in some other states.”
There were a few issues to negotiate, to be sure, much of them spearheaded by legislation that was close to passage that would have delayed the use of new testing in evaluating teachers for up to two years.
Instead of signing or vetoing the bill on his desk, Christie issued an executive order and new regulations on Monday to scale back the weight that such testing would have on evaluations for two years. He also appointed a taskforce to examine the implications of all state testing.
Yesterday, much of the attention was on the membership of that task force. The executive order calls for its nine members to be appointed by the governor, but the NJEA was quick to say that it had been assured there would be at least two teachers and a principal on board.
“At least one elementary school teacher, one secondary and a principal — at minimum,” said Edward Richardson, the NJEA’s executive director. “We thought those were essential voices to be at the table.”
The prime sponsor of the Assembly bill that passed overwhelmingly questioned why only nine members and why “unilaterally” appointed by the governor, when her bill called for 15 representatives from virtually all of the major school groups.
“Considerable time and effort was invested in developing a taskforce structure that would be representative of the many stakeholders — parents and teachers chief among them — these changes will impact,” said state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex).
Nonetheless, she called the decision to reduce the test’s consequences a “step forward.”
“I am relieved that the impact of test scores will be reduced as we take time to examine critical discrepancies about the best way to strengthen our schools,” Jasey said in a statement.
Richardson, the NJEA’s director, said the union had two goals in working with the administration: the reduction of the weights, and also some flexibility on the immediate use of “student growth objectives,” [SGOs], a separate measure in teacher evaluations that uses other assessments and student objectives.
“I think the SGOs was the thing that was done the worst this year — the state, districts, across the board,” he said. “People were feeling their way through it, and not getting it right.”
Many of the complaints from teachers were that the objectives were being determined by administrators, when it was supposed to be a collaborative process.
The agreement called for an appeals process for teachers who ended up with a unsatisfactory rating of “partially effective” or “ineffective,” where the SGO was a determining factor.
In return, the union agreed to raise the amount those SGOs would count from 15 percent this year to 20 percent going forward.
Richardson said it was a negotiation of political expediency for both sides, and he would not discount the union working with the administration again. He especially praised acting commissioner David Hespe, a Trenton veteran whom the union has always has good relations.
“We will not always agree, and pension is a good example,” Richardson said. “But we are and have always been willing to work with the administration where there is common ground and we can accomplish something.”
Added Hespe yesterday: “It was a good example of government that works. It was a good exchange of perspectives and all coming to the same conclusion that we should do something now.”