NJ Politics: Ed Reform and the Fate of Speaker Oliver

Great Moran piece today on the splintering of NJ Democrats over issues of race, leadership, public unions, and, yes, education reform. At issue is whether Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, “the highest-ranking African-American in New Jersey politics,” gets to keep her leadership role. And a new political force in the mix, according to Moran, is David Tepper, funder of B4K, a new NJ group devoted to tenure reform and school choice.

There’s lots of nuances splintering various Democratic factions; one is Speaker Oliver’s alliance with Republican Governor Chris Christie and Democratic Senator President Steve Sweeney on this year's increases in contributions public employees make to pensions and benefits premiums. Notes Moran,
The legislators most eager to overthrow Oliver are the supporters of public-worker unions that resent her pushing pension and health reforms. And many of these same legislators oppose Tepper’s education agenda.
Some regard Oliver as a weak ticket, “a back-bencher with little influence,” only Speaker because of a back-room deal cut by mighty Democrat George Norcross, Steve Adubato, and Esssex County Executive Joe DiVicenzo. (DiVicenzo, Moran points out, is Oliver’s boss at her day job.) Ah, Jersey politics.

(Today’s PolitickerNJ reports that Democratic State Senator Nick Sacco made George Norcross a deal he couldn’t refuse: Oliver keeps her Speaker seat in exchange for a budget chairmanship for Assemblyman Vincent Prieto from Hudson. Prieto had been discussed as a possible replacement for Oliver; this must be his consolation prize.)

So what does all this mean for the prospect of education reform in the Garden State?

George Norcross controls Sheila Oliver. And Norcross has big ambitions for changing the nature of public education in NJ. He’s expounded widely on the need for expansion of charter schools, tenure reform, and passing the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which aligns him neatly with both Gov. Christie and David Tepper’s agenda. Norcross has also made his distaste for NJEA clear. In June he told the Courier Post,
Over the past 18 months the actions of the NJEA union leaders, and in particular President Barbara Keshishian, would seem to suggest that they are really plants from the Republican administration. Their actions are so stupid and so arrogant that they must have been planted here because they've made Gov. Christie a national political figure overnight."
Now, over the last two months, the leadership of NJEA has softened its opposition to basic tenets of education reform, even going as far as to propose extending by one year the awarding of tenure to teachers, from three years to four. Last week NJEA Executive Director Vince Giordano told Tom Moran, “This label that we are the organization of ‘no’ I don’t think is accurate,” Giordano says. “We’ve turned a corner. We understand our role. We want to be part of the solution.”

And Ginger Gold Schnitzer, an NJEA lobbyist, said today that the union “was open to discussing ways to get rid of poor performing teachers,” adding “[n]obody wants to to keep ineffective teachers in public schools. Not the NJEA, not the teachers…Now let’s talk about how to get there.

Maybe that newly discovered willingness to collaborate on education issues like tenure will, in turn, bleed into a softening of the anger expressed towards Speaker Oliver and Senator Sweeney over the pension/benefits reform. (In August NJEA's PAC went as far as to not endorse either of them for re-election in August.) And that, in turn, could lead to a less contentious consideration of ed reform bills among NJ's Democratic legislators. Perhaps they now understand that knee-jerk support of status quo politics that favors adults over schoolchildren is playing poorly among members of all parties.

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