Teachers Union Heads Get First-Hand Look at NJ School-Reform Hot Spots

John Mooney, Education writer | September 15, 2014 | Education
Two national leaders visits Camden and Newark districts, tout organized labor’s relevance in local debates over state initiatives

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, visiting Pyne Poynt Middle School in Camden.
One was the visit to Camden by the president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union. The other was a stop in Newark by the head of the Chicago Teachers Union, the woman who led the nation’s largest teachers strike in decades.

While the visits were not coordinated — the two unions are not affiliated — but the timing of the two events on Friday and over the weekend was nonetheless notable for what are inarguably the two hot spots for school reform in New Jersey.

Teachers unions in both state-run districts have been right in the middle of intense debate over reforms being pursued by Gov. Chris Christie. In Camden, the union tried to fight off layoffs last spring. In Newark, the union has fought school closures and consolidations.

But with the influence – or at least strategies — of those unions sometimes questioned even within their own ranks, the two national union leaders tried to change that conversation this weekend and made a pitch for organized labor’s continued relevance.

“The bottom line is we are at a turning point in this country, and (teachers) are saying they are no longer a respected voice, they are becoming punching bags for governors,” Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the NEA, said in an interview this weekend. “We’re saying enough is enough.”

Karen Lewis, president of Chicago Teachers Union, speaks in Newark with Mayor Ras Baraka.
Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, spoke at a forum at Rutgers- Newark on Saturday alongside Mayor Ras Baraka. She pulled few punches.

“We’ve been following Newark for some time, and nothing has changed,” Lewis said after the forum. “We are seeing the same attacks on publicly-funded public education … and the same top-down mandates that don’t work.

“It’s command and control, something they are not even teaching in business school anymore.”

‘An incredible tale of two schools’

On a cross-country tour of schools that started in Fairbanks, Alaska, Eskelsen Garcia had asked to visit a school in New Jersey that faced the challenges of poverty and also was at the center of the storm over school-reform efforts. She was pointed to Pyne Poynt Middle School in Camden.

That same day, Eskelsen Garcia also had a chance to visit a school that was neither of those things: West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, an hour’s drive away.

It was a notable contrast, apparent not just in the streets she traveled to and from the schools. At the high school, she reported, she toured orchestra rooms, science labs, art rooms, and “state of the art” track facilities.

“At Pyne Poynt, the principal and faculty followed me around, and they were just so proud that their school had just been painted,” Eskelsen Garcia said. “They had nothing new they could show off.”

She was pleased about one thing the two schools had in common: “After looking at this incredible tale of two schools, I asked the kids the same thing: What do you love most about your school? And they said the same thing: their teachers.”

“What we need is legislatures and governors to understand that those kids in Pyne Poynt deserve the same as West Windsor, and those in West Windsor deserve no less,” she said.

And she said there is very much a role for unions to play in pressing those issues and others, including what she called the “toxic” effect of testing.

“We are seeing little rebellions growing up organically,” she said. “Sometimes it is parents, like those at Pyne Poynt, and sometimes it is just groups of teachers who say we don’t want to do this to our children anymore.”

Chicago v. Newark

Karen Lewis knows a thing or two about militant teacher unions, having led the Chicago Teachers Union to an eight-day strike in 2012 that shut down the nation’s third-largest school district over issues like merit pay and teacher evaluations.

And, this weekend, she joined activists in Newark in trying to spark some of that same fire in the wake of protests and a boycott that marked this year’s opening of city schools under state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson’s “One Newark” reforms.

“We’re seeing this everywhere, where outside forces are making huge decisions that affect people with the notion that neighborhood schools are no longer needed,” Lewis said Saturday following a forum hosted by the Abbott Leadership Institute and New Jersey Working Families Alliance.

“We have turned schools into, basically, shopping malls, where you have to shop for your school as opposed to being to have good schools in every neighborhood.”

The day before, she had visited Newark’s Barringer High School and called the experience “very sad.”

“The school (promoted) science, engineering, arts and math, and I didn’t see one science lab,” she said.

But she hedged on commenting on the state of the Newark Teachers Union, which is a powerful force in the city but has faced sharp divisions within its own membership, both over the contract it settled with Anderson and its relative silence during the latest protests.

After the forum, Lewis spoke privately with several leaders of the Newark Education Workers caucus, a dissenting voice in the union that opposed the contract and actively joined in the protests. The caucus now holds a majority of seats on the union’s executive board, but failed in unseating longtime president Joseph Del Grosso.

“I’m not going to come here and talk about what the Newark union should be doing,” Lewis said. “That’s something they work out among themselves. That’s how we did it in Chicago.”