With two days off from school, thousands of teachers walked the aisles in the Atlantic City Convention Center last week, collecting education swag, swapping gossip, and attending professional workshops including a pension education session and yoga classes. Though Gov.-elect Phil Murphy was scheduled to speak early Friday morning, specifically to thank the New Jersey Education Association for its support in his election, many of the educators in attendance expressed their disinterest in politics.
Indeed, few seemed to be aware of the vicious battle the NJEA waged against state Senate President Steve Sweeney, (D-Gloucester) for what the union’s leadership deemed his lack of support in the past few years and his broken promise to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot regarding pension payments. Instead, the NJEA futilely backed a Trump-supporter, Fran Grenier, who holds little regard for public employees.
The unsuccessful campaign to oust Sweeney ended up costing at least $17 million —possibly $20 million when the counting is over — the most expensive legislative race in New Jersey history. The NJEA spent $5 million alone. The battle also engendered much animosity toward the union among Senate Democrats, particularly Sweeney.
Yet teachers at the convention said they were disconnected with decisions made by the union’s leadership.
“I’m not really aware of the politics” said Matthew Marmaro, a 7th grade math teacher at Galloway Township Middle School. “I’m mainly concerned about the math curriculum and what we’re teaching our students.”
Marmaro and others said they know obliquely that the union carries a lot of influence in the Legislature, and they are optimistic about the upcoming Murphy administration, but the controversial goings-on in Trenton regarding the NJEA are not often top of mind.
Overall, teachers interviewed by NJS — many of whom asked to remain anonymous — expressed their disconnect or disinterest in dealing with politics. They said they trusted their union to fight for them and assert their best interests, but knew little about disagreements like those with Sweeney.
Now that Murphy’s won, the NJEA will undoubtedly wield more influence with the administration than they did with current governor Chris Christie, who often used the union as a punching bag. Sweeney’s re-election does complicate things, however.
Although most seemed oblivious to the union-Sweeney fight, there were some teachers who expressed less than total support of the union’s political battles. Sharette Pierce, a music teacher at Cherry Street Elementary in Bridgeton, said sometimes she feels like her state NJEA leadership gets too wrapped up in them. She said for too long “it’s been all about the money and politics, who’s in and who’s out.”
Pierce said she thinks her union leadership should just be focused on the issues and doing what’s right for teachers and students.
Some, however, said they were not content to let the people at the top make decisions unchecked.
Elisa Waller, an art teacher at South Tom’s River Elementary, said too many teachers she knows just complain without taking any action. Waller said she goes to meetings and asks leaders tough questions hoping to hold them accountable and let them know she cares.
“In order to get all of the benefits of a union, you have to be involved” Waller said. “We can’t let the people who make all the money control the decisions. That’s not what we teach our kids and that’s not how we should act.”
Even though she stays involved, Waller said, she admits that some of the political intricacies move too quickly for her to keep up. She said newly elected Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver’s decision to back the pension/benefits bill that required public employees to increase contributions left her scratching her head.
“First she was pro-union, then she wasn’t, it just confuses me a bit,” Waller said. “I trust my union though and if they support her then I hope she makes her stance more clear.”
Though Oliver’s influence remains to be seen, most of the teachers at the convention agreed that they were overjoyed to be done with the current Christie administration and optimistic about Murphy.
Murphy has made a lot of promises regarding education and earned the fervent support of many NJEA members. Speaking to a roaring crowd Friday morning, Murphy promised to “fully fund public schools” though he didn’t outline any specific policy points for how he intends to do so.
“For too long our educators our students and New Jersey property- taxpayers have suffered from underfunding,” Murphy said. “We’re going to stop the underinvestment in public schools, it is priority number one.”
On the campaign trail, Murphy announced his support for the School Funding Reform Act, but his stump speech was definitely idealistic. According to some estimates, that funding would cost roughly $1 billion to $2 billion a year more on top of current spending of $10 billion a year from the budget.
NJEA President Marie Blistan told NJS she is confident Murphy will come through for the union. She said Murphy really does “get” public education.
“We are fully expecting that he will invest again in public education like it used to be in this state,” Blistan said. “With this election we have made a difference. Our members coalesced with other unions and with the populace in this state to say we need a change at the helm and we have accomplished that goal with Phil Murphy.”
And it’s not just the NJEA leadership who have high expectations for the new governor.
Matthew Byrd a math and science teacher from Dr. Lena Edwards Academic Charter School in Jersey City said “I’m hopeful, I’m thankful that we have a new administration and looking forward to going in a positive direction”
Teachers it seems are just hopeful Murphy will be able to tackle some of their biggest concerns. For Byrd, it’s getting the pension system sorted through, for others it’s amending or eliminating the PARCC exam or fixing the tenure pink-slip system.
“Only time will tell; he has a lot on his plate but I feel like he is a politician that is willing to sit down at the table with NJEA and their members and get things done,” said Tara Temprano, a teacher at Washington Elementary School in Hawthorne who worked for the NJEA Members for Murphy campaign.
“Even though the Sweeney thing did not go as planned, there’s a lot of positives down the road.”