After Christie-Sweeney dustup, education reform's fate lies with the bosses
Tom Moran/ The Star-Ledger | NJ .com
The Rev. Reginald Jackson watched in horror last week as the political romance between Gov. Chris Christie and state Senate President Steve Sweeney exploded in flames.
It started when the governor pruned the budget of nearly everything Democrats wanted, after refusing to talk to Sweeney. And it ended with Sweeney’s obscene tirade.
All that’s left now is the smoldering wreckage of a relationship that’s been at the core of every major reform since Christie took office. A week after the governor called to discuss the meltdown, Sweeney still had not returned his calls.
“Look, his personality and mine aren’t too far apart,” Sweeney says. “But on my worst day, I couldn’t hurt people like that. I just didn’t think anybody could be that mean-spirited.”
To Jackson, head of the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey, all this means is that education reform is now in serious jeopardy.
“All kinds of alarms went off in my head,” he says. “This whole debacle on the budget has derailed everything. It’s going to make it harder for the governor to get his agenda through. And education happens to be one of the areas where the governor is right.”
The governor calls education reform his next “big thing.” He wants to effectively end lifetime tenure, pay teachers based on merit, expand charter schools, provide vouchers for private schools and strip away rules that protect senior teachers during layoffs, regardless of merit.
All of that was a steep climb, even before the meltdown. But Sweeney’s opposition would make it impossible.
He has the power to block any bill from reaching the Senate floor. In effect, Sweeney now has veto power over the guy he described last week as a “rotten bastard.”
“I have no choice but to deal with him,” Sweeney says. “But some of these reforms I will never do.”
Merit pay for teachers is dead, Sweeney says. So is the governor’s plan to strip away job protections for senior teachers during layoffs.
Sweeney will consider tenure reform, but not until someone finds a way to objectively measure teacher performance based on student outcomes.
“We’re going to discuss that,” he said. “But it’s been like finding a genie in a bottle. It’s been impossible.”
As for vouchers, Sweeney says he may allow a vote for a limited pilot program, but he is personally opposed to the current bill. Only on charter schools does he sound like a believer.
So is it hopeless? Not quite.
And that brings us to the really strange twist in this story.
The sad truth is that education reform now depends on the efforts of the Democratic bosses — people such as George Norcross in the south, Steve Adubato in the north, and a second tier including Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) and Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson).
Yes, the bosses. The same people who are blamed for everything that is wrong with New Jersey — the sleazy fundraising, the secret deals, the patronage, the rule by a small clique of insiders.
The fact is, without the support of Adubato and Norcross, the bipartisan reform of pension and health benefits would never have happened.
You can look it up. Nearly every Democrat who is linked to these two machines, north and south, supported the reforms. With solid Republican support, it was enough to cross the finish line.
The same coalition is the only hope for education reform, especially now that so many Democrats are furious at Christie over the budget.
“The governor has built the mountain we need to climb even higher,” Lesniak says.
But the bosses, including Lesniak, back most of the education reforms.
“There has got to be a very serious revolution, especially in urban education,” says Adubato.
Norcross, who has pulled his levers from behind the curtains for years, recently braved the daylight to appear at public events with the governor to support reforms, and is seeking to establish charter schools himself, following Adubato’s lead.
The final twist is this: Sweeney is the key player on Norcross’ team. Close friends since childhood, they collaborate on everything.
So will Sweeney block Christie’s agenda, even if it is one that Norcross supports?
The fate of education reform may hinge on the answer to that question. Stay tuned.