DOE Strategic Blunder

It’s been a bad week for the NJ Department of Education. Acting Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks’ conspicuous absence at last week’s NJEA Convention produced volumes of vitriol from mainstream media. NJEA Prez Barbara Keshishian issued an understandably self-righteous response. And today two separate news organizations remarked on more systemic problems within the DOE. NJ Spotlight, in a piece on some problems cropping up with school districts’ spending of ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) money, remarks,
In New Jersey, the influx of federal money and all its conditions only puts an added burden on an already strained state Department of Education.

"We’re had hiring and staff freezes," said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science at Drew University who has tracked spending under the federal Race to the Top grants. "The capacity of the DOE has actually decreased over the past several years as its responsibilities have increased dramatically."
And New Jersey Newsroom, reporting on the increasing numbers of NJ school districts that are not making Adequate Yearly Process in high-stakes testing, notes,
As shown by Hendricks' "acting" status, educational policy in Trenton has been in disarray. She has temporarily replaced Commissioner Bret Schundler, fired by Gov. Chris Christie after the two men had a public spat over the reasons for New Jersey's bungled application for federal "Race to the Top" education funds.
Why the sudden attention to weaknesses at the DOE?

Here’s one guess: the decision to have Hendricks boycott the NJEA annual convention back-fired. The intention may have been to underline the teachers union’s irrelevance to public policy and politics. Instead, it made the DOE appear weak.

It’s true that bitch-slapping the NJEA has proven to be an effective strategy for Gov. Christie. He continues to reap political benefits by taking on NJ’s public employee unions, and none seem as happy a target as NJEA. Should we stand here or here? A president of a local bargaining unit disseminates an official letter that includes death threats aimed at the Governor. A film maker produces a film that goes viral on youtube depicting NJEA leaders getting loaded at a convention, all perfectly choreographed for Christie.

It’s one thing, though, to give an opponent lots of rope and then sit back. It’s another thing to publicly dis 40,000 attendees at the annual NJEA convention. So let’s call it: Rochelle Hendricks should have taken it on the chin and showed up at NJEA. (In fairness, other NJEA staffers did, and she also didn’t appear at a scheduled sessions at New Jersey School Boards Association the week before because she had the flu. Note to DOE: a flu relapse would have played much better.) Would Commissioner Hendricks have been booed? You betcha. Heck, NEA members booed Arne Duncan right after his appointment as US Secretary of Education. It goes with the territory. But we hear she’s a tough lady.

If Gov. Christie was responsible for Hendricks’ MIA status (which seems likely), then he needs to refine his strategy. Recalcitrant leadership or not, the NJ DOE needs to find some way to work with NJEA if we’re to move forward with many of the education reform initiatives at the heart of Christie’s agenda. There’s a space for reconciliation in there somewhere and this recent incident invites the perception that both the DOE and the Governor have turned off their GPS.

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