To describe the relationship between Gov. Chris Christie and the New Jersey Education Association over the last five years as tumultuous is probably an understatement.
But yesterday it took a turn toward the bizarre, as Christie, in an otherwise uneventful budget address, trumpeted what he called a historic agreement with the teachers union over paying off New Jersey’s massive pension liability – leaving a stunned and suddenly besieged NJEA leader saying, “Whoa, not so fast.”
“To be clear, we never sat down with the governor on this,” said Wendell Steinhauer, president for the 200,000-member union who yesterday became the second most sought-after individual in the Statehouse.
At issue was a broad plan that the NJEA did, in fact, sign a week ago with the state’s Pension and Benefit Study Commission. That agreement laid out a general framework for working toward a solution to the pension issue, including holding a statewide referendum on a constitutional amendment to lock in pension payments.
Steinhauer did not disavow that agreement, which was described by both the union and Christie as a “roadmap.”
But he and other union officials said they never thought it would be the basis of Christie’s entire budget plan — especially without any additional money attached.
Others were left dumbfounded. The leader of a firefighters union said the NJEA should be “ashamed for allowing Gov. Christie to slash the terms of retirement their members have earned.” The president of the largest state workers union said it had not been consulted at all.
NJEA officials conceded that their own members had been calling them to express their concerns.
Senate President Steven Sweeney (D-Gloucester), himself a union leader, defended the NJEA and said it had been intentionally “burned” by the governor.
“The teachers union showed real honest leadership in having a discussion to save their pension system,” Sweeney said afterward. “That being said, (Christie) tried to hurt them, what he did was an attempt to hurt their credibility. He really did a number on them today.”
The union itself released a statement last night saying it was “deeply disappointed” by the governor’s portrayal of what had been agreed upon.
“We have not agreed to any changes to pensions or health benefits,” Steinhauer said in the statement. “We have only agreed to continue looking at all solutions that may provide our members with more stable pensions and affordable, high-quality health benefits.
But Christie was hardly letting up, yesterday evening releasing the document signed by the union and the commission charged with devising a solution to the pension mess – including an image of the actual signatures.
“There is more work to be done, but the Governor has found common ground with a long-time political opponent to bring fundamental change to these systems that, without reform, threaten the state’s fiscal health,” read a statement from his office.
The drama comes at a time when the union has been once again flexing its muscle, but on a very different front: addressing the state’s imminent expansion of standardized testing.
The NJEA last week launched an advertising campaign against the new PARCC testing, which is slated to go statewide next week. The ads call on the state to scale back the use of the tests in teacher and school evaluations.
The PARCC testing is just one of several issues where the union has exerted its influence of late, as the NJEA has also taken a stand on new rules for teacher preparation and support and in the ongoing debates over the oversight of charter schools.
But yesterday’s flap left NJEA officials answering questions about their role in the governor’s plan and what will come next.
Sweeney said yesterday that he doubted any lasting damage had been done, but he also noted that the uproar also deflected attention from other issues in Christie’s budget.
For schools, there was, indeed, not much else new to report in the governor’s proposed budget, which called for no overall change in direct state aid to school districts, making it the third year of nominal or no changes in so-called “formula aid” to schools. The actual aid numbers for each district are to be released later this week.
Elsewhere in the budget, there were some small increases or decreases, including $3 million in additional aid to preschool program and a $3 million allocation for inter-district school choice. There was a $2 million cut in aid for charter school start-ups, and $4 reduction million to nonpublic schools.
In his only real initiative, Christie did revive his proposal for a relatively modest, $2 million school-voucher program that would use tax credits to raise money for “scholarships” to enable low-income students to attend private schools or public schools outside their communities.
It’s one of the most contentious and longest-running education issues in the state. And, with its long-shot odds for winning approval in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, it warranted just a line in the governor’s budget address.