Education in the Media
N.J. Gov. Chris Christie Swings for the Fences on School Reform PackageDecember 6, 2011
In his customary swing for the fences style, Gov. Chris Christie has asked the Legislature to enact the most far-reaching restructuring of public education since the implementation of a funding formula and the income tax to support it 35 years ago.
Reaching consensus may be less contentious than one would have imagined, say, a year ago when Christie and the New Jersey Education Association were busily lobbing nuclear weapons back and forth across West State Street at one another.
By no means has peace been made and significant differences of opinion remain between the governor and the teachers' union. But, each has become slightly more conciliatory.
The governor, for instance, backed off his initial demand that tenure — currently granted after three years on the job — be eliminated entirely and replaced by a performance evaluation system.
The NJEA offered a counter proposal extending to four years the time required before tenure could be achieved, utilizing a performance evaluation system, and referring dismissal efforts to an arbitrator for resolution, avoiding the time and expense involved in the existing process. For the Association, tinkering with tenure would have been unthinkable not so long ago and its willingness to even open a discussion about the system represents a sea change in its position.
Tenure has been criticized for locking underperforming teachers into a lifetime job, but there is equal concern that without some sort of job security, teachers could be dismissed for reasons not related to their performance but because of political pressures or personality clashes with administrators.
The governor's proposals would also use an evaluation system for salary increases (merit pay) and to determine layoffs rather than basing them on seniority.
Christie also wants to ease the path for creating additional charter schools and to establish a limited voucher system for parents to remove their children from schools deemed substandard and enroll them in private schools.
There will be conflicts and sharp disagreements in the future, but by directing its energy toward influencing the ultimate legislative outcome rather than engaging in a campaign to defeat the package entirely, the NJEA can offer its supporters in the Legislature what it considers an acceptable alternative to the governor's program.
Better to be seen as a part of the solution than be demonized as the source of the problem.
It is a tacit recognition that its' political clout has diminished somewhat and working to shape the legislation more in line with its desires is a prudent and potentially successful course rather than a pitched battle with a Chief Executive who relishes swapping haymakers with opponents.
Emotions are still raw from the struggle over the Administration's victory in requiring a half million public employees to contribute more to their pension systems and health insurance premiums.
The NJEA will remind legislators that the Governor's education overhaul package again falls exclusively on public employees — teachers, this time — and will argue that its voice should be afforded great weight in their deliberations.
When he avoids cringe-inducing language to describe the NJEA, the Governor can be quite persuasive in his desire to improve education particularly for youngsters he argues are trapped in failing schools with no way out and who are being denied the same opportunity enjoyed by their peers in other districts.
He will mount an all-out campaign to secure approval of his program and will bring the considerable powers of his office to bear as he has done in the past, from town hall meetings to news conferences to carefully choreographed public events designed to demonstrate broad grassroots support.
He'll also utilize more basic fundamental politics, maintaining his alliance with Democratic legislators from Essex and Camden counties, with an occasional assist from Hudson, to join with unanimous Republican support — the same formula which led to approval of the pension and health benefits reform package.
The education overhaul proposals are so all encompassing that the opportunity for compromise is considerable for all involved.
The Governor and the Democratic legislative majority will seek to build a record of significant accomplishment and generate momentum with their eyes turned toward the 2013 election when the Governor and the entire Legislature will share the ballot.
Compromise will be driven by that political reality as will the understanding that a partisan battle which results in a failure to enact any reforms will bring blame down on all their heads.
The stakes are high for the NJEA as well. It wants to be an equal partner — not a junior partner — in molding and guaranteeing the future of its members. It faces an opportunity to regain some of the stature it lost and restore its reputation and relevance as an organization dedicated to providing a high quality education to children.
If they'll reach out and seize it, there's something here for everyone.