As every reader of this site should be aware, the battle between New Jersey's largest teacher union- the NJEA- and the Governor, Chris Christie is one of the greatest story lines of 2010. After his inauguration, it did not take long for the union to step up its attacks on Christie and the Republican Party. Faced with a huge budget deficit, he was forced to slash spending and cut over $1 billion in aid for public schools. This brought the wrath of the NJEA down on Christie as they embarked on a major, expensive advertising campaign against the Governor and his budget cuts. The budget battle in New Jersey is usually a messy affair even when the Governor is a Democrat and the legislature is Democratic-controlled. But 2010 was decidedly different despite the NJEA $300,000 per week advertising blitz as Christie's budget sailed through the legislature- despite budget cuts and NJEA opposition. In fact, the ugliness that usually accompanies these budget battles- which are a reflection of state priorities and, to a lesser degree, fiscal reality- was absent and the legislature recessed for the summer with a budget in hand, no state shutdown, and no real ill-feelings.
As one leader in the NJEA explained, something happened this year. One morning they were those who would teach the future of the state and the next morning they were the bad guys. Teachers like to tell students that it is their behavior that lands them on detention or in the principal's office. It is ashame they don't heed their own mantra when it comes to the actions of their union or, in some cases, their own actions. For example, Facebook-posted prayers wishing death upon the Governor by a teacher did little to help their case. For example, confronting Christie in person about how his budget cuts affect a teacher's pay generally falls on deaf ears when it is discovered that teacher makes in excess of $70,000 a year. For example, running campaigns about how these cuts hurt the children when the real "concern" is their paycheck and benefits package usually fall on deaf ears. And that is perhaps the most galling aspect of the NJEA's campaign against Christie.
I have the distinct advantage of working in private industry and also have the pleasure of being a substitute teacher in a semi-urban school district. The particular school in which I work is ethnically diverse- mainly Hispanic and Asian with a smattering of whites and blacks. Up front, let me state that the majority of the teachers at this school are dedicated to their students while also being members of the NJEA. I have seen children enter this school knowing little or no English and, the following year, wishing they never learned English. In reality, these "port-of-entry" students show a greater propensity to learn than many American-born students. I have seen a special education teacher working with mentally challenged children work nine hours and take her break and lunch with her students and not complain. I see teachers use their own money to buy basic classroom supplies that one would think the district would supply.
Yet, I have also seen NJEA fliers that aim to rally the base. I have heard comments from teachers and students attacking Christie, not to mention the obligatory bumper stickers on file cabinets deriding Christie (although I never see the bumper stickers on any BMW, Lexus, or other high-end SUV teachers drive to school every day). I have heard comments to me advising me to stay away from considering being a full-time teacher "as long as this guy is Governor."
For example, towards the end of the last school year, at the height of the NJEA vitriol against Christie, one fourth grader came into the class and exclaimed to the others that "we need to go shoot the Governor." The reason? His budget cuts meant there would be no soccer next year. What funding had to do with an after-school soccer program begs the question. While it is true that the in-school mandatory swimming lessons were cut, thus necessitating the transfer of a tenured teacher to another position- a teacher who also happens to be a State Senator- obviously this 4th grader heard something somewhere from somebody. It did not take a major amount of investigation of that source considering the gym teacher has a bumper sticker on a file cabinet in her office which reads "STARVE CHRISTIE." One teacher showed me an NJEA flyer about what Christie's reforms would mean to teacher pay. It said that if a teacher started at $19,000 a year, in ten years they would be making only $25,000. Considering that the average teacher salary in New Jersey (not counting their lucrative benefits package) is $58,156, I had to wonder why they chose a starting salary of $19,000 for their analysis. When I pointed that fact out and also that the analysis did not take into account amortization, I received a blank look from the teacher.
I have the greatest respect for the administration in this school. They have supported me in many ways at many times. But to illustrate how things sometimes operate in New Jersey schools, despite the excellence of teachers and administration, last year a second-grade teacher was scheduled to go on maternity leave towards the end of the school year. A more qualified candidate to take over that class- someone a certified teacher who had successfully passed state tests for qualification (who happens to be my wife)- was passed over for the relative of a school board member. I had the displeasure of relieving this person once and found an unruly class where it appeared the students ran the class give their behavior and their lack of work. This act, more than an NJEA flyer, is what turns prospective teachers away.
Another "crime" that Christie proposed was that future teachers salaries be capped at 2% annual increases. He also required that future teachers pay 1.5% of their salary towards their very lucrative benefits packages. To see how this works, for the average paid teacher, this amounts to $872 yearly. Conversely, my job in private industry, pays approximately $32,000 a year. I pay $4,680 per year for my realtively inferior benefits package. Put another way, in 10 WEEKS I pay the equivalent of what Christie proposes teachers would pay IN A YEAR! So unless you are a teacher or other public employee union member, the cries of the NJEA fall on the deaf ears of the vast majority of New Jersey residents. And while members of this school district were receiving average 3% raises per year despite relative performance or the subject or grade they taught, in private industry I was receiving near perfect performance appraisals for NO RAISE whatsoever (and, incidentally, my benefits package cost increased). So, like others outside the public employee domain, the cries of the NJEA fall on deaf ears. Yet, the NJEA cannot understand why they are losing the public relations battle. And by the looks and sound of it, their attempts to use the children their members teach is also back firing on them.
At a recent rally for Third District Congressional candidate John Runyan in Toms River, Christie appeared in support. He was met by about 35 protesters of which an estimated 25 were public school teachers. This, along with the misleading flyers, the television and radio advertising blitz, the campaign contributions directed at Democrats, the comments picked up by students, and the Facebook postings, is what the NJEA is all about in reality.
When Ronald Reagan was elected President, one of the major tasks facing him almost immediately was the impending air traffic controller job action. His response was to essentially break the union. No one died in the air; there were no collisions on the ground. There were some back-ups, but generally speaking, people got from Point A to Point B safely. Despite the occasional glitch, air traffic control in the United States is one of the best in the world. One wonders how breaking the NJEA in New Jersey would affect overall education in the state. Would we then become no worse than we are now or would New Jersey become one of the best states for education in the country? Mandating a maximum 2% increase in teacher salaries per year or requiring a 1.5% contribution to health benefits falls far short of union busting in the Reagan-air traffic controller sense. Considering the options out there available to Christie, the NJEA should back off. Of course, there would be teacher job actions, but there are qualified replacements out there and eventually the NJEA could only do so much. Considering they spend more on advertising and political contributions than they would on helping teachers during job actions (the money would soon run out while those BMW and Lexuses and other SUVs need to be paid for), the members of the NJEA and the AFT should think twice before they drag the children whose interests they claim are the heart of their arguments into a fight with Christie. This is not Florio or Corzine or McGreevey sitting in the Governor's Mansion in Princeton. Christie is not beholden to the public employee unions of the State, especially the NJEA.