Outsiders Join Fray on Schools

August 14, 2011

Better Education for Kids (B4K), a new advocacy group financed by hedge fund managers, is introducing itself to poor communities across New Jersey by giving away 50,000 backpacks filled with supplies.

The first backpack drive hit Asbury Park Saturday and other drops are planned in Elizabeth Tuesday, Perth Amboy on Aug. 24, Jersey City Aug. 27, East Orange/Linden/Orange Aug. 28 and Camden on Aug. 31.

The group also plans a drive somewhere in Gloucester County, home of Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney. The former freeholder opposes the OpportunityScholarship Act (OSA), a pilot voucher program that would allow students in underperforming schools to enroll in better public or private schools outside their school districts. It's also a central plank of Gov. Chris Christie's education platform.

"Giving backpacks and supplies away is a nice gesture, but it's not reform … it's public relations," scoffed New Jersey Education Association spokesman Steve Wollmer.

B4K's arrival on the scene in May rattled liberal Democrats and the NJEA, the state's largest teachers' union. Funded by wealthy hedge fund managers Alan Fournier and David Tepper and run by activist Derrell Bradford, the 501(c)(4) launched a TV and radio campaign hailing Christie as a "bipartisan reformer."

It was purely coincidence B4K's ads went up around the same time the NJEA began running ads attacking Sweeney and George E. Norcross III, chairman of Cooper University Hospital and a prominent Democrat who has aired his concerns about public schools in media interviews and newspaper op-ed pieces.

The NJEA campaign against the two Democrats not only puzzled and angered many within the party, it maximized B4K's entree into the education reform debate. The union has spent millions attacking Christie as anti-teacher and a proponent of wealthy corporate interests. Now B4K promises to be a countervailing force to the NJEA's anti-Christie agenda.

''We're trying to be an equalizer," Tepper said.

The former Goldman Sachs trader runs his own firm, Appaloosa Management in Chatham, Morris County, and is worth approximately $5 billion, according to Forbes.

"We're not going anywhere. We're going to be here through this and the next election."

B4K is not coy about wanting to influence New Jersey government. Its companion 527 group … which can promote or attack individual candidates for elected office … mailed questionnaires to state legislative hopefuls last month. B4K will disclose donors who give more than $5,000, a contrast to another new group, One New Jersey, whose liberal founders say they will not reveal funding sources.

Those running B4K admit they're improvising. Tepper and Fournier have donated generously to schools and education programs over the years, but this is the first advocacy organization either has helmed.

Bradford, who previously ran E3 (Excellent Education for Everyone) in Newark, calls this next phase of his professional life Ed Reform 3.0. The label also applies more broadly to the New Jersey public schools debate. Factor in partnership with StudentsFirst, a national group founded by Christie ally Michelle Rhee, and it's clear B4K is an entirely new animal.

''We do intend to be active in certain races where we can make a difference, but how many (legislative) districts and what form that's going to take is not set in stone at this point," said the 49-year-old Fournier, a former employee of Tepper's who now runs his own firm, Pennant Capital Management in Chatham.

"As necessary, we will be a political and policy counterweight to the NJEA," said Eric Shuffler, a former McGreevey administration official who is a B4K consultant.

"If you put your neck out there, there will be an organization that's going to have your back."

"It is not in our interest to specifically put candidates on notice ahead of time," Fournier added. ''But they know who they are."

Aside from B4K, the most interesting development in Ed Reform 3.0 is the battering of the NJEA's image.

"Look at the building trades," noted Shuffler, a Democrat whose children attend New York City public schools. "They became a lot more flexible in how they approach work agreements because they realized they had a duty in changing economic times.

"Now they're (NJEA) viewed as intractable defenders of the status quo. Even if they do have new ideas, no one takes them seriously."

Some teachers agree NJEA may have done irreparable damage to its cause. But they rarely make disagreements publicly known in order to preserve relationships with colleagues and with parents.

"You'll get no argument from me that the union has made serious political miscalculations," said a North Jersey public schoolteacher who blogs under the handle Jersey Jazzman.  Jazzman and another Garden State teacher and anonymous online Christie critic, @StoptheFreezeNJ, are among online critics of Christie's policies.  Both confirmed their identities and teaching positions with the Courier-Post, which agreed to grant them anonymity to protect their jobs.

B4K's Tepper comes from a multigenerational family of public schoolteachers. Raised in a poor section of Pittsburgh, he began volunteer coaching and mentoring when he was a penniless student.

''We are not in any way, shape or form against teachers," Tepper insisted. "My mother would kill me."

Good public education helped him overcome humble origins, Tepper explained, and he wants the same opportunities given to other children. Those behind B4K favor ending the last-in, first-out policy that puts young teachers on the chopping block ahead of older ones, regardless of their respective effectiveness. B4K also wants to end automatic teacher tenure.

''You will never hear anybody who is against any of this stuff deny there are hundreds of thousands of kids in schools you would never send anybody you love to," said Bradford, a 37-year-old resident of Jersey City.  "There are enormous structural problems in the way we recruit and deploy teachers."

A 2010 state report found districts that serve disadvantaged students are more likely to draw young, inexperienced teachers assigned subjects in which they had little training. High rates of faculty absenteeism … such as that documented in Camden public schools by the Courier-Post in 2010 … also meant more students were taught by substitutes.

''Derrell (Bradford) is proposing to help a few of the children who are caught in this situation," Jersey Jazzman said. "If the problem is in Camden, why do I have to have my tenure rights taken away?"

While disengaged or overmatched teachers might be a problem in underperforming schools, overly political parents and administrators can be a problem in well-regarded suburban schools, teachers say.

The teacher known as StoptheFreezeNJ said he was driven into anonymity after starting a Facebook group criticizing Christie. While the governor himself has never publicly insulted teachers, many of his admirers do so freely on the Internet.

"Teachers are accountable in many ways," the blogger said. "We're evaluated by superiors, principals, and teacher academies. If you're a bad teacher you don't stick around. Some 40 percent of teachers don't make it past the fifth year."

Statistics indicating the profession naturally flushes out bad teachers are often cited but difficult to nail down. A number of studies corroborate high turnover rates in specific state or city school systems, and the National Education Association estimates 45 percent of teachers drop out within their first five years on the job.

But education scholar Bruce Baker of Rutgers University said bad data and myths have driven the modern schools reform movement.  ''The Gates Foundation has been fed really awful misinformation," Baker said, pointing to the second-biggest nonprofit funder of U.S. education initiatives.  He also called Christie's education platform "a cut and paste" of the reform agenda.

The assumption of a direct correlation between low test scores and teacher "slackerism" rests on an premise teaching is easy, rankled educators contend.

"I am a very good teacher in a fairly affluent school system," said Jersey Jazzman. "But there is no guarantee I would be just as good a teacher if you put me in Irvington.  "That's one of the unacknowledged things about teaching … it is as much an art as a science."

''If the goal is, one, to improve the average quality of teaching statewide, and, two, to improve equity in the quality of education, it's really doubtful changing the pay structure will make a difference anyway, especially when we're looking at a future of lower average pay," Baker said.

That future is looming for many New Jersey educators thanks to the new pension and health benefits law, StoptheFreezeNJ said.  ''I've been teaching for eight or nine years with no real raises. The year I hit my first real bump is the year I would have to start full-blown payments into benefits.

''Chris Christie says he wants a great teacher in every classroom but then says we spend too much on education. And then he says he wants to pay teachers more. But if you want them all to be great teachers and to pay them more it's going to be very expensive.

"It doesn't make sense."

The dollars will be there, reformers insist, if underperforming teachers are taken off payrolls. But New Jersey law makes it prohibitively difficult to do so, even for teachers schools refuse to hire. Fournier cited a recent Wall Street Journal report that found 68 fired Newark teachers were simply shifted to other poor-performing schools.

''This is not some radical education theory about teaching math one way versus another way," Fournier said.  "This is really simple stuff. This is about getting people who shouldn't be in the profession out of the profession."

Reach Jane Roh at (856) 486-2919 or jroh@gannett.com