New Group Makes Splash in NJ Education Policy
Associated Press | Asbury Park Press
TRENTON — A new organization is seeking to become an authoritative voice in the debate over how to improve New Jersey schools, giving Republican Gov. Chris Christie a deep-pocketed, well-connected and bipartisan ally and the state’s biggest teachers union a new foil.
The group, Better Education for Kids, made its presence known in politics this fall when it spent about $400,000 to boost four legislative candidates. For the past few weeks, it’s been holding meetings with teachers and education reform proponents to try to find some common ground.
The attempt to build consensus comes just before lawmakers are expected to consider Christie’s major proposals for overhauling the state’s public education system. Christie wants to reduce tenure protections, establish merit pay for teachers and give children in low-performing schools easier access to better ones, including by using taxpayer money to fund scholarships to private schools. Many of the governor’s plans are in line with those pushed by President Barack Obama.
The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, sees the group as a front for Christie and what they say is an effort to crush the union, rather than as an organization focused on improving schools.
Better Education for Kids, which goes by the name B4K, spent about $1 million over the summer on television and radio commercials promoting Christie’s agenda.
It is trying to establish itself as the one organization involved in the debate that is focused entirely on the interests of schoolchildren.
“The one really important difference is that the people we represent are the kids and the families,” said Derrell Bradford, executive director of the policy arm of the group. “I know everybody says it’s all about that. We have no financial interest in public education, at all. Every other group does. I don’t say that in a way that’s meant to disparage anyone. We can be about pure activism because we don’t have anything to gain from the success of the agenda other than that kids get better educational opportunities.
B4K’s founders are two hedge-fund managers: David Tepper, a Democrat, and Alan Fournier, a Republican. Neither had been deeply involved in education policy issues before they started the organization this year.
Their organization is technically two groups in one: a policy advocacy unit and a political action committee. Its political consultants include Jamie Fox, who served as chief of staff for Democratic former Gov. Jim McGreevey and Mike DuHaime, the Republican strategist for Christie’s 2009 campaign.
The group also serves as the New Jersey branch of StudentsFirst, an education reform organization run by Michelle Rhee, the former District of Columbia schools chancellor who is one of the best-known advocates for overhauling teacher pay and tenure laws and a despised figure among union activists.
Rhee adopted a teacher evaluation system based partly on student performance. Under it, hundreds of school employees, many of them teachers, have been laid off because of poor performance. While some teachers liked the chance to get more recognition and pay increases, voter anger over some of Rhee’s changes was a factor in the defeat of Mayor Adrian Fenty for re-election last year.
New Jersey is different from most states because it has some of the highest- and lowest-performing schools in the country, Rhee said in an interview Friday.
“It has unique challenges; there are tremendous opportunities,” she said. “You have a governor who is very, very out front in education reform. He’s willing to take it on.”
Bradford is a familiar voice in New Jersey education policy circles from his time working at Excellent Education for Everyone, including a stint as executive director before he left for the upstart group this year as executive director. E3, as it is known, focuses on advocating for publicly funded scholarships to send students to private schools. B4K supports the idea, but its main focus is on improving the quality of teachers by paying better ones more and making it easier to fire low-performing educators.
The deputy director is Shelley Skinner, who was a member of Christie’s transition team when he became governor.
Justin Barra, a spokesman for the state Education Department, said Friday that, despite the connections, the state does not give B4K any special credence.
“We welcome an open dialogue with partners across the ideological spectrum on any initiative under way at the department,” he said. “Good ideas come from many places, and whether they come from the NJEA or B4K, we’re happy to take them into consideration.”
NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer sees it differently and sees the group’s efforts, and Christie’s, as attempts to blame students’ problems on teachers.
“It’s about crushing unions. That’s what it’s about,” he said. “The unions are in the way of privatization, which is their goal. The way you get unions on the retreat is to take away people’s job security.”
B4K quickly became a player in New Jersey elections, too. It made about $400,000 in independent expenditures this year to support four state Assembly candidates. That amount is well short of the $1.4 million the NJEA has spent on political efforts this year.
B4K backed four candidates, with split results. Two southern New Jersey Democrats, Gabriela Mosquera in the 4th District and Troy Singleton in the 7th, won. Two Republicans in northern New Jersey’s 38th District, Fernando Alonso and Rich Goldberg, were defeated.
Michael Lilley, the executive director of B4K’s political action committee, said the group would have spent more on candidates it favored if there had been more competitive races this month.
B4K offered teachers $100 gift certificates in recent weeks for participating in sessions in Camden, Iselin and Elizabeth to talk about teacher evaluation plans. Two more of the private meetings were to be held Saturday.
How teachers should be evaluated is one of the hottest topics in public education in New Jersey and nationally. In a move strongly supported by B4K, New Jersey officials are testing a system in which half of teachers’ grades would be based on classroom observations by principals and half on measures of student performance — including improvement by students in grades and subjects where standardized tests are given.
Some teachers welcome the idea that part of their evaluations would be based on an objective standard. But the test-oriented part of the plan bothers the union, which says standardized tests were not meant to be used that way and doing so could mean lesson plans will be changed for the worse.
Christie and B4K would both like to see the evaluations linked to determining which teachers get and keep the protections of tenure, deciding which keep their jobs if there are layoffs, and awarding them merit pay bonuses.
Bradford said the meetings with teachers followed a similar course.
“They start off very contentious and end up better,” he said. Teachers, he said, are generally glad to be able to give some input into policies that will affect them, and they sometimes find areas of agreement.
The meetings have been private. He said he would ask some past participants if they would be willing to be interviewed. By Friday afternoon, none were.
Despite NJEA’s misgivings about B4K, one union official was scheduled to be on a panel at its Princeton meeting on Saturday.
“She’s participating because we’re willing to discuss these issues in any forum,” Wollmer said in an email. “She’s extremely well-versed in evaluation, and played a key role in developing our reform proposals. Besides, B4K may come around.”