How Education Reform Is Changing N.J.'s Political Landscape

A funny thing is happening on the way to the gubernatorial election in New Jersey. The education reform movement is starting to overturn traditional alliances among Democrats, advocates for low-income and minority students, and the New Jersey Education Association. Just last week Martin Perez of the Latino Leadership Alliance called Corzine “ineffective” because of his education policies and teetered to the edge of endorsing Christie. Reverend Reginald Jackson of the Black Ministers Council told the Record that Corzine could lock up inner city votes if he’d back a specific voucher program, but “the support among parents and parishioners in Orange and other communities is no match for the power of the New Jersey Education Association in the State House hallways.”

Public awareness of and anger towards our struggling and expensive public education system is growing; the New York Times has called it the “sleeper issue” of the campaign. Adding heft to this post-partisan movement is the strange cadre of bedfellows coalescing around issues like merit pay and charter schools. In New Jersey this loose coalition includes, besides the Black Ministers Council and the Latino Leadership Alliance, Derrell Bradford of Excellent Education for Everyone, New Jersey Charter Schools Association, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Outside of N.J., there’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his boss, D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee, N.Y.C. Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and the N.Y.C.-based Education Equality Project, whose signatories include everyone from Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, and John McCain to Joe Williams of Democrats for Education Reform, Harold Ford of the Democratic Leadership Council, and Al Sharpton.

Merit pay and charter schools: the bedrock of education reformers’ strategy and the antithesis of NJEA’s agenda. It’s stark – not much wiggle room there – and right now Jon Corzine is stuck in the unenviable position of having to choose. He’s tried to have it both ways during his present term as governor, touting his victory in the courts with the School Funding Reform Act, which is supposed to channel make-it-fair money to poor kids, regardless of whether they live in an Abbott district or not. He’s pushed preschools hard, though the funding has dried up. He’s raised graduation requirements (though he hasn’t touched the Special Review Assessment, a state-wide embarrassment [see here] that artificially inflates our high school graduation rate and puts kids out on the street with a diploma but no academic skills).

So he’s had some successes. But merit pay and charters? Not so much. It’s the third rail of the NJEA and he won’t touch it.

Here’s an example. Everyone from President Obama on down has called for the expansion of charter schools. There’s 11,000 kids on waiting lists in New Jersey. Federal stimulus money is dependent on our commitment. Arne Duncan chose to make his New Jersey visit against the backdrop of the North Star Academy, a charter school in Newark. But here’s an excerpt from an NJEA Q & A with Education Commissioner and Corzine-appointee Lucille Davy, who is asked “what are your thoughts on charter schools? ” (Full transcript here.) “We’ve got outstanding public schools that aren’t charter schools too. We ought to be highlighting what all of these schools are doing, particularly where they are succeeding with populations of students that lots of folks think you can’t succeed with.” A more tepid endorsement of charter schools would be hard to find.

Even to a casual onlooker, Corzine’s obeisance to the NJEA leadership must seem over-the-top. For example, in 2008 he put off signing a pension reform package at NJEA’s request so that new hires would get more generous benefits. He let a bill go through the Assembly Education Committee that would give job protection to non-tenured school workers (see here). And, according to Rev. Jackson, he backed out of a promise (or Budget Chair Barbara Buono did – same difference) to allow a committee vote on school vouchers. It’s this sort of deference to union leaders that has started to alienate a historically supportive base.

Christie is playing it just right. His “snub” of NJEA was deft, and he’s even got pictures of President Obama on his website. It’s that post-partisan thing: it’s not about the party anymore, at least in New Jersey. (No wonder Paul Mulshine just called for the Republicans to draft a different candidate!) If Christie manages to win, partly because of the support of this new coalition of education reformers, then the leadership of the NJEA has lost. And if support for the leaders of the NJEA (and, by extension, the NEA) is undermined, then this opens the door for New Jersey to set a national example for meaningful educational reform.

This is not an endorsement for Christie. Frankly, we don’t know where he really stands, except for spending less money. He says he’ll support charter schools and seems drawn to a reform agenda, but the devil’s in the details. And Corzine is not the only politician in the state who is beholden to the NJEA; legislative gridlock won’t get us anywhere.

The dynamics of the race demand that Corzine find a way to distance himself from the leadership of the NJEA. (Sure, there are 200,000 members, but most teachers are not widgets; they're smart, compassionate, and want what's best for kids.) All Chris Christie has to do right now, at least on educational issues, is sit back and watch while New Jerseyans look past traditional affiliations and maybe, just maybe, try something new.

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