Christie’s One-Man Band

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Is it possible to flip the bird to NJEA and still succeed as New Jersey’s education reformer? It sounds like Chris Christie is going to try. He’s been out and about touting his school reform wish list – expansion and full funding of charter schools, teacher and principal accountability, merit pay, a meaningful school choice program – and all items happen to be anathema to the leadership of the teachers’ union.

Christie’s not even sworn in, but he’s already being inducted by some into the exalted ranks of government leaders who advocate school reform. In today’s Asbury Park Press, the editors remark that Christie has aligned himself with educational reformers like “Mike Bloomberg and Barack Obama,” in comparison to Corzine:

Corzine, who wanted nothing to do with an educational reform agenda, portrayed himself as a champion of the urban poor. In truth, he was nothing but a sentinel for the NJEA and its status-quo policies. The NJEA, abetted by Corzine, has been the chief impediment to changes that could result in better teachers, better school environments and better educational options for disadvantaged children.

Whether Christie is deserving of the Press’s annointment or not, he’s trying on the mantle with a twist. While other reform leaders have minced through the niceties of collaboration with union leadership – Duncan spoke respectfully at the NEA Convention even though he got booed – Christie seems to be hellbent on blowing them off. For example, yesterday Christie parked himself in front of Steinert High School in Hamilton, Mercer County, a middle-class (its District Factor Group is FG) district that just happens to be the 8th largest in the state (13,000 kids in 23 schools) and one of the cheapest (cost per pupil is $11,891; the state average is $14,359). Reports the Philadelphia Inquirer,

Christie promised tough negotiations with labor unions representing teachers and state workers. He said the New Jersey Education Association, which represents teachers and opposes many of the urban education ideas he has backed, “has been a strong advocate for the status quo.”
“They need to get realistic about the fact that change is coming,” Christie said

Bottom line: he’s being about as conciliatory as a Sherman Tank with a big, rich association that controls some of the state legislators whose cooperation he’ll need to get anything done. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Maybe it’s a good strategy. After all, all he needs to expand charter schools is to appoint a like-minded Commissioner of Education, since the vagaries of N.J.’s charter school legislation put all power to approve applications in that one seat. But other items in the reformers’ pantheon include merit pay and teacher/principal accountability, and progress on those fronts may require some collaboration.

At the recent NJEA Convention, NBC40 quoted an NJEA member who said, in response to Christie’s plans, “I don’t think he knows a lot about us, he doesn’t know our strength.” Maybe the NJEA has overestimated its strength. Maybe Christie has underestimated it. But Christie’s surely feeling some wind beneath his wings (partly powered by the Race To The Top engine) and we’ll all get to see whether it takes two to tango out meaningful education reform in New Jersey or whether Christie can pull this off solo.

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