Christie details proposals for changes in schools

Gov. Christie explains his plans during an address in New York.
Gov. Christie explains his plans during an address in New York.
Posted: April 08, 2011

NEW YORK - Linking failing schools to teen drug use, crime, and pregnancy, Gov. Christie said Thursday that teacher tenure should be based on performance, not seniority, and that teachers should be paid more if they work with at-risk children.

"If I had gone to school in the city of Newark, I would not be governor. It's that simple," said Christie, whose parents moved from Newark to middle-class Livingston, N.J., when he was 5.

The reason failing districts in poor cities cannot produce future governors, he said, is that the teachers' unions have a "stranglehold" on politicians, particularly Democrats, thwarting reform.

In an address sponsored by the Brookings Institution at a hotel off Central Park, Christie offered his most detailed account of a plan that, if approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature, would change the way teachers are paid, evaluated, and fired.

The plan further escalates the war between the Republican governor and the state's largest teachers' union, the New Jersey Education Association, which this week launched a multimillion-dollar TV, radio, and Internet advertising campaign blasting him for lowering state educational aid by hundreds of millions of dollars from previous years.

A lawsuit over about $820 million in aid cuts by the administration last year is pending before the state Supreme Court. The current budget proposal restores about $250 million in aid.

An NJEA spokesman, Steve Wollmer, said Christie was on a national "crusade," orchestrated by the right wing, to devalue the quality of New Jersey's public education, kill unions, and "privatize" education. Christie's policies have led to larger classes, fewer school programs, user fees for activities, and higher property taxes, he said.

"This is free-marketeers running amok, and now they have their hands on the public treasury, and what they want to do is put public education out of business," Wollmer said.

He cited, for example, the loss of 10,000 teachers and school staffers largely to layoffs after districts lost state funding. He also noted Christie's moves to expand publicly funded, privately run charter schools.

Christie touched on charter schools in his address, but for the most part, he presented a plan that he called nonpartisan, twice praising President Obama for speaking "strongly and firmly" on education.

First, he called for evaluating all teachers. Half of such evaluations would be based on test scores, grades, and the pace of student advancement. The other half would be based on observations in the classroom and elsewhere by supervisors and other teachers.

Adjustments would be made for special-education teachers and those who don't give tests, such as music instructors.

Second, evaluations would be used to award tenure - or take it away. No longer would teachers with three years of experience get tenure and be protected from layoffs.

"If you're a good teacher, you stay. If you're not, you go," Christie said. "I don't understand why this is so radical."

Third, higher salaries would be given to teachers who work in poor districts with at-risk children, or those who teach subjects with a dearth of instructors, such as science. And no longer would more money be given for getting a graduate degree.

"When did capitalism become a dirty word in education?" Christie asked. He said New Jersey should be carrying good teachers "on our shoulders to school every day because they're gold, and we should be paying them that way."

So far, no legislation has been introduced to implement Christie's plans.

Unions, he said, won't die. They are still needed to guard against political and arbitrary firings.

But much of Christie's speech was a direct attack on the NJEA, which he describes as the most powerful lobbying force in Trenton and the biggest obstacle to persuading the Legislature to agree to his changes. He called the NJEA "a moneyed special interest that bullies and thugs its way through the hallways of my Statehouse to get whatever it wants."

Christie cited statistics that the union immediately disputed, including his reference to the NJEA executive director's salary of $550,000. Wollmer said that one year, in 2007, because of a deferred compensation payout and cashed-in sick and vacation time, executive director Vince Giordano received more than $500,000. Now, he is paid a little more than $300,000.

Wollmer called Christie's statement that teachers pay more for union dues than they do health care a "lie," and he rejected Christie's off-cited statistic that only 17 tenured teachers in New Jersey have been fired due to incompetence in the last decade.

The NJEA says far more are fired every year but couldn't provide an exact number. The administration says the 17 refers to those who lose challenges to the firings in the tenure process.

Wollmer said the NJEA was involved in the reform process - and has a bill being considered in the Legislature to fix tenure - but could not deal with Christie because his ideas had never been proved to improve education.

Basing teacher salaries on student performance doesn't work, Wollmer said, because "we don't run assembly lines. We don't make widgets. Not all kids are the same."

Other factors - such as neighborhoods and home life - affect test performance, and teachers can't be held accountable for such variables, he said.

Another influential entity in Trenton, the New Jersey School Boards Association, released a statement Thursday endorsing Christie's plan, particularly for tenure: "Tenure now serves as nothing more than a lifetime system of job protection that makes removal of an underperforming teacher difficult, time-consuming, and expensive."

Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 609-217-8355 or Follow the "Christie Chronicles" blog at

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