Call Me Bret

If nothing else, Bret Schundler’s testimony before the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee underscored the odds against New Jersey’s battle to provide equitable educational opportunities for poor urban children. If it were just about money, this would be a cakewalk. (Remember, the cash we lost -- $400 million – is less than half of what we spend in one year for Newark’s public schools.) But it’s not just about money.

It was hard to remain unmoved by the authenticity of Schundler’s narrative, one of personal betrayal, his boss's privileging of politics over meaningful reform, a brash Governor Ahab-like in his megalomaniacal quest to thwart NJEA and rule talk radio. How many times did Schundler take personal responsibility for the error in the mythical F(1) question, the one that asked for 2008-2009 financial data? Here was an honorable man wronged by out-sized egos and clumsy political maneuvers, falling on his sword (no! not harpoon!) amidst a sea of dysfunction and lies.

So, the take-away (here’s full coverage from PolitickerNJ, the Courier-Post, and The Record; here’s Schundler’s written testimony) is that Gov. Christie lied and Bret Schundler honestly believed that the compromise application would have moved education reform forward in NJ. NJEA comes out smelling like roses, having made an honorable attempt to compromise and work through differences. The Department of Education is in shambles. The Senate is embroiled in petty fisticuffs, the Democrats shooting broadsides at the Governor and the Republicans angrily deflecting fire. Meanwhile, Christie is practicing magic tricks and sleights-of-hand. (Look over here! Look at the tunnel!)

Meanwhile, it would have been useful to hear from NJEA’s leadership (did anyone think of subpoenaing them?) and Wireless Generation, the consultants hired to oversee the application, is all lawyered-up and still MIA.

So now what? A swift reconstruction of the DOE is imperative; the organization chart has more holes than a hunk of swiss cheese. The current Acting Commissioner, Rochelle Hendricks, is, we hear, a smart, reform-minded leader, though unlikely to get the nod for the full-time gig. Willa Spicer, Assistant Commissioner and repository of all institutional knowledge, announced her retirement yesterday. Timothy Peters, the state’s testing director, left over the summer. Sandra Alberti, the math and science education director, is on her way out. The eminently-qualified Andy Smarick, whom Schundler brought in from the Fordham Foundation in August to be Deputy Commissioner, can’t get Senate approval, apparently because he’s not a native New Jerseyan. (Come on, guys – isn’t that a plus? Also, now that you’re so enamored with Bret, maybe you should take his pick as a going-away present.)

The NJEA’s willingness to collaborate with Schundler is promising, perhaps a fleeting opportunity for buy-in not to be squandered. While the instigation for compromise may have been in large part due to Gov. Christie’s successful vilification of union bosses through platforms like Jim Gearhart’s show on 101.5., NJEA’s press release yesterday attempted to cast the lobbyists in a more reform-ish light: “We call on [Christie] to begin a dialogue with educators about how to bring much-needed resources and research-based reform to New Jersey’s public schools.” Ironically, Christie’s public castigation of the union may have forced a private reckoning. For the moment, at least, NJEA seems to be accepting some of the tenets of Race To The Top like expansion of charter schools, heavier reliance on student growth to evaluate teachers and administrators. There’s an acknowledgment, tepid or not, that, at least in our poor urban schools, the application of reform principles is inevitable.

So: final lessons. Gov. Christie needs a talk-radio intervention and should stop listening to 101.5. None of this plays well in NJ or on the national stage. An apology to Bret Schundler might be too much to ask for, but ignoring these proceedings looks juvenile and ham-handed. How about a thoughtful, inclusive statement on the urgency of education reform for all stakeholders? How about talking about next steps?

A crisis is an opportunity, at least according to Rahm Emanuel. We’ve got a whole list of the former: an dysfunctional, demoralized DOE, the legal challenges to forging ahead in Newark, a bickering Legislature, and, need we add, an entire cadre of chronically failing schools. An incisive leader would gather the shards, navigate through the shoals, and articulate a unified message about public school reform that gets us moving in the right direction.

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