Education in the Media
NJEA, Democrats Wrongly Balk at New Push for Schools ReformOctober 23, 2011
It’s fascinating to see the nervous response of establishment Democrats to the arrival of David Tepper on the political scene in New Jersey.
Tepper is a hedge fund manager from Livingston worth about $5 billion, and he’s promising to throw a good chunk of that into a political fight over school reform with the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union that has long been the colossus of Trenton.
Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), the former governor, is hostile, saying he doesn’t believe rich guys should be able to buy influence, a line many Democrats echo. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) is suspicious, suggesting that Tepper and his partner in this effort, Alan Fournier, are seeking to impose "social engineering" on unsuspecting black and Latino students.
And several Democrats whisper the line pushed by the operatives of the New Jersey Education Association, who say this is a plot by Tepper and Fournier to enrich themselves by turning public schools over to private investors such as themselves.
For our part, we look forward to hearing the bombs explode when these two launch their offensive, and we hope they win. If they are able to break the grip of the NJEA, children in our poor cities will be much better off.
Take tenure reform. It is supported by roughly two-thirds of New Jersey voters and has been blocked until now, mainly by the political muscle of the NJEA.
The union has spent roughly $25 million in the last two years, $15 million on direct political spending and another $10 million in goodwill messages about the public schools and the union. No other group puts as much money or volunteers into statewide elections.
Why do Democrats make no objection when the NJEA spends lavishly to block the will of the majority, but balk now when Tepper and Fournier work to promote it?
And why did so few Democrats complain when Jon Corzine was shoveling cash into their campaigns? (In defense of Codey, he was a rare Democrat who did.)
Oliver’s charge about social engineering is more serious. Ultimately, the success of this group hinges on the grass-roots effort to mobilize hearts and minds. But this group’s agenda is popular in failing school districts and heartily embraced by people such as the Rev. Reginald Jackson of the Black Minister’s Council. In the face of the crisis in our urban schools, does it not make sense to try something different?
The charge that Tepper and Fournier are trying to make money is beyond ridiculous. They know how to make money. They have not suggested turning schools over to private investors. By fanning such a silly conspiracy theory, the NJEA is only confirming that it has no shame. The union is making noises now about supporting tenure reform, but the danger is they will offer window-dressing as a substitute for real reform.
Yes, in a perfect democracy, rich people would have no more influence than others. We are all for strict limits on political donations and believe the final answer is public financing of campaigns.
But here on Earth, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, we are charging in the other direction.
Tepper is a Democrat and Fournier is a Republican. The agenda they are pushing encompasses all the common ground between President Obama and Gov. Chris Christie: tenure reform, merit pay, charters schools, a relentless focus on student achievement and more power for parents. Tepper favors only a small pilot program to experiment with vouchers.
This is not radical stuff. It’s the meat of a reform movement that is spreading across the nation, and is the one area where bipartisan agreement is both common and growing.
Tepper and Fournier are not the right-wing Koch brothers, using money to fortify the power of America’s elites. They are philanthropists trying to get poor urban kids a shot at a better life. In the fight ahead, we wish them luck.