Wide gap still separates Christie, teachers union

In pushing his plans, Gov. Christie has argued publicly with teachers, noted the six-figure salaries of union leaders.
In pushing his plans, Gov. Christie has argued publicly with teachers, noted the six-figure salaries of union leaders. (MEL EVANS / Associated Press)
Posted: November 13, 2011

ATLANTIC CITY - When Gov. Christie's education emissary waded into New Jersey's annual teachers union convention here last week, he brought none of his boss' artillery to that enemy territory.

Noting at the start of his speech that he was a former high school teacher, acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf used conciliatory language. He joked at crowd interruptions and pledged to work with the New Jersey Education Association toward common goals.

In other words, it was not a "Christie" speech.

Cerf's words Friday, coupled with the NJEA's recent release of its own education "reform agenda," indicated a possible thawing in relations between the state's largest teachers union and the Christie administration.

Possible, but unlikely.

After the speech, NJEA executive director Vincent Giordano said his relationship with Cerf had recently "improved significantly." There also have been "cordial, civil, and productive" meetings between the NJEA and George E. Norcross 3d, the state's most powerful unelected Democrat and a key Christie ally in the education debate, he said.

But Giordano had no warm words for Christie, who he said had turned the union into a "whipping boy."

Asked at a news conference last week if the NJEA's new proposals were a sign of possible compromise, Christie dismissed them.

"Don't waste your time" even reading them, Christie advised a reporter.

The war between Christie and the state's public-employee unions, particularly the NJEA, has defined the governor's term. He has proposed a dramatic agenda for overhauling the school system and declared education his top policy priority.

Christie wants to change the tenure system for teachers so that continued employment is connected more to performance evaluations than hiring dates. He wants to increase pay for those who work in tough schools. And he has expanded the charter-school program, signing a law last week, for example, that allows some parochial schools to be converted into secular charters.

In pushing his plans, Christie has argued publicly with teachers, noted the six-figure salaries of union leaders, and characterized his opponents as selfish power-mongers who don't care about children.

The NJEA has responded by plowing millions of dollars into anti-Christie TV ads. It even chartered a plane to fly along the Jersey Shore with a banner that touted its millionariesforchristie.com website, which describes how Christie cut millions of dollars for schools but has refused to raise taxes on the rich.

Last week, the Christie-NJEA relationship entered a new phase.

First came Tuesday's legislative election, which maintained the political makeup in Trenton. The NJEA had withheld endorsements from Democrats who supported a Christie law that increased public employees' contributions for pension and health benefits, but those Democrats were reelected nonetheless.

That means the NJEA must contend with a contingent of Democrats, unofficially led by South Jersey's Norcross, that supports some of Christie's education plans.

The other development was the NJEA's release of its own "aggressive, progressive reform agenda."

Mostly a compilation of previous plans, it would add a fourth year to the current three-year wait for tenure, allowing time for additional mentorship. And the dismissal process for a poorly performing tenured teacher would be streamlined to make it faster and cheaper.

As for teacher evaluations, the NJEA advocated including student test scores as part of the scoring system - a key element of Christie's proposal. But it would take into account factors such as student poverty or disruptive family situations including divorce.

And broad disagreements remain about how the educator evaluations would be used.

On Friday, in a packed conference room at the Atlantic City Convention Center, Cerf told hundreds of teachers that neither he nor Christie has a problem with teachers.

"For all of the swirl of words that go back and forth - and for some reason, this arena seems to attract a high-decibel discourse - I really make a point of trying to convey the depth of my appreciation," Cerf said.

The Christie administration is not "against" unions, he said.

"Oh, come on!" one teacher yelled in response.

"We are not against unions, and hear me on this: We are for policies that will advance student learning and narrow the shameful, shameful learning gap in this state," Cerf said.

He noted that New Jersey students are among the highest-ranked in the nation, but said that claim cannot be made for children in the state's poorest districts, such as Camden.

This is the crux of Christie's argument. The governor noted last week that only 23 percent of Newark high school students graduate in four years despite $100,000 per pupil - most of it from the state - spent to educate them during that time.

One of Christie's proposed remedies is the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which the NJEA staunchly opposes. It would grant companies tax credits to fund scholarships that inner-city students could use to attend school elsewhere.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) also opposes the plan. And Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) said last week that the state's education system was "not broken." Under pressure to separate themselves from the Republican governor's policies, they may have little willingness to rush Christie's education overhaul through the Legislature.

Less sweeping proposals, such as changing the process for firing bad teachers, could fare better.

"Some [teachers] are bad. There, I said it," Cerf declared Friday. When he added that there were poor performers in all fields, including commissioners of education, a voice in the crowd yelled "yes!"

Another teacher offered one more group that does a poor job: "Governors!"

Still, Cerf heard polite applause after his speech. It wasn't necessarily the administration's proposals that made them angry, teachers said. It was Christie's rhetoric.

"The vitriol that has come out toward educators in the last two years is real and it's palpable, and it has come from our collective boss," said Marie Corfield, a Flemington art teacher who unsuccessfully ran for the Assembly after getting into a town-hall argument with Christie that was caught on video.

During a question-and-answer period, Corfield told Cerf that Christie had ignited so many online attacks against them that "a lot of people in this room are afraid now to admit they are teachers."

Christie said last week that he would like to be invited to speak at a future NJEA convention.

"All he's got to do is pick up a phone and call," Giordano said Friday. But "there's a lot of scorched ground we have to cover before we have that kind of an open forum here. . . .

"I'd like to hear him say, 'It's a new day, a new dawn.' "

Christie and Teachers Union Plans

Teacher Tenure

Christie: Teachers could lose tenure based on their evaluations.

NJEA: Require teachers to work for four years, instead of the

current three, before becoming eligible for tenure. A mentor would be required in the first year. The union had already proposed moving tenure-charge cases from courts to an arbitrator for

quicker processing.

School Choice

Christie: Allow students easier movement to other public schools. Use corporate tax credits to fund scholarships that students in some low-performing districts could use at other public or private schools.

NJEA: Let some colleges approve and regulate charter schools

and broaden existing options within school districts or in other public schools. Do not use public money for scholarships to

private schools.

Standardized Tests

Christie: Base a large portion of a retooled teacher-evaluation system on measurable standards, such as students' improvement on standardized tests.

NJEA: Do not rely more heavily on standardized tests.

Recruiting Teachers to Troubled Schools

Christie: Allow low-performing districts to pay higher salaries for top teachers moving from other districts.

NJEA: Experienced teachers who switch districts would be eligible for tenure in two years instead of the current three.

Merit Pay

Christie: Pay teachers, in part, based on student outcomes, such

as standardized test scores.

NJEA: The union has opposed singling out teachers for merit pay based on test scores. Its new plan calls for teacher leaders to be appointed and eligible for higher salaries, a concept similar to one Christie supports.

School Management

Christie: Have education-management organizations - possibly including for-profit companies - run some struggling schools.

NJEA: Do not allow for-profit firms to run schools.

SOURCE: Associated Press

Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, mkatz@phillynews.com, or @mattkatz00 on Twitter. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at philly.com/christiechronicles.


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