Christie Escalates Teacher Union War as Pay, Tenure Targeted

Christie Escalates Teacher Union War as Pay, Tenure Targeted
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Photographer: Ramin Talaie/Bloomberg

In New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s perfect world, the worst unionized teachers would forfeit raises or even lose tenure rights they have enjoyed for more than a century.

Students in the state’s underperforming schools would be offered vouchers to attend private institutions. Failing schools would be taken over by publicly funded charters operated independently of district boards of education.

The plans, which Christie, 48, lays out in town-hall meetings on YouTube, have escalated his war with the teachers’ union and helped make him a Republican star. The first-term governor seeks cuts as he faces a $10.5 billion budget deficit in the fiscal year that starts July 1. He closed a similar gap in 2010, partly by slashing $820 million for schools.

“Christie has set himself up as a gladiator figure going after the teachers union,” said Jerry Fried, a Democrat and mayor of Montclair, a northern New Jersey town where teachers last year accepted a pay freeze after the governor cut about $5.5 million in aid. “That confrontational posture is not helpful.”

Christie’s success in winning support for his proposals may determine whether other governors follow his lead. Across the U.S., states confronting budget deficits of more than $140 billion are reducing spending on education, cuts that may yield jammed classrooms and fewer teachers.

Ten states may tackle long-sacrosanct tenure this year, said Michelle Rhee, the former District of Columbia schools chancellor who founded Students First, a nonprofit group that works with politicians on education issues.

From the Top

Christie “is going to significantly move the ball forward,” Rhee said in an interview. “I’ve never heard a politician at his level, a governor, say what he’s said on this.”

New Jersey spends $17,620 per public-school pupil, more than any other state, and the system still fails many children, Christie said. In September, he proposed linking teacher pay to performance, and making it easier to fire the worst educators. This month he proposed ending tenure altogether.

“It is the only profession left in America, with the possible exception of weathermen, where you are not rewarded for excellence and you are not punished for failure,” Christie said in an interview yesterday at Bloomberg headquarters in New York.

Nation’s First

New Jersey in 1909 became the first state to enact a tenure law to protect teachers from politics, according to Michael Simpson, an attorney with the National Education Association. The privilege makes it nearly impossible to fire them, Christie said during his Jan. 11 State of the State speech to the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

New Mexico and Georgia abolished tenure and then reinstated it, according to Simpson. Only Wisconsin, Texas and Mississippi don’t have statewide tenure statutes, he said.

New Jersey would be the first state to take it away from teachers who have earned it, according to Emily Cohen, district policy director for the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality.

“There’s going to be a lot of pushback on this,” said Peter Woolley, a political scientist at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey. The teachers’ union “is not going to go away and curl up in a ball in the corner. They are going to fight this tooth and nail for years.”

Christie said his beef is with the union, not teachers. His battle with the 200,000-member Education Association began during the 2009 governor’s race, when he declined to meet with the group. The union spent $3 million in a failed bid to re-elect the incumbent, Democrat Jon Corzine, Christie said in May. Wendell Steinhauer, vice president of the association, declined to confirm that figure.

On Ice

The governor has sparred with the union over his aid cuts and proposals to cut pensions and benefits. In April, voters at Christie’s urging rejected a record 59 percent of school budgets in districts where teachers refused to accept wage freezes.

The administration in August lost $400 million in federal Race to the Top education aid because of an application error. Former Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, who was fired over the mistake, told lawmakers that the governor was partly responsible.

Christie scrapped a compromise with the NJEA that cost the state points because he didn’t want to be seen as surrendering in a dispute over performance-based pay, Schundler said.

In November, Christie’s acting education commissioner, Rochelle Hendricks, declined to speak at the NJEA’s annual gathering in Atlantic City, a move the group termed an “unprecedented refusal.”

‘More Screaming’

Christie’s “vilification of teachers and their unions is a cloak for all of the cuts that have been or are about to be visited upon public education,” Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers, said in an interview. “The worse the fiscal situation is, the more screaming you hear.”

Christie in March signed a law requiring teachers to allocate 1.5 percent of their salaries to health benefits. They previously paid nothing. A teacher now pays on average about $900 a year toward a plan that costs $22,000, Christie said.

The governor has faced off with teachers at town-hall meetings to discuss overhauling government. His office uploads videos of the gatherings to a YouTube channel, which shows they have been viewed more than 2 million times.

Christie cut school aid by 7 percent, to $10.3 billion, or 35 percent of his current $29.4 billion budget. He will present his next spending plan on Feb. 22.

Looking Higher?

Christie’s focus on education may hint at national aspirations, said Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at Teacher’s College, an affiliate of Columbia University in New York.

“Are his actions consistent with someone who’s trying to position himself as someone seen as a leader in this issue?” Henig said in an interview. “Yes.”

In September, Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show to announce a $100 million donation from Facebook Inc. founder Mark Zuckerberg for improving schools in New Jersey’s largest city.

In October, the Virginia Tea Party Patriots named Christie their top choice for the 2012 Republican nomination. Christie said yesterday he won’t run for president.

Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan, a Union Democrat, said Christie’s education proposals play to public opinion.

“He’s a governor that thrives on divisiveness,” Cryan said in an interview. “He needs enemies.”

‘Get Together’

The National Education Association, which represents 3.2 million current and retired educators from New Jersey to California, opposes efforts to roll back tenure, said President Dennis Van Roekel. Besides New Jersey, states including Idaho, Montana, Colorado and Illinois are looking at the issue.

Tensions between Christie and the union may harm students, said Judy Hyde, president of the state chapter of the Parent Teacher Association, who put three boys through public schools in Kearny.

“I wish they’d just get together and speak,” Hyde, 67, said in an interview.

Many parts of the governor’s education-overhaul plan need legislative approval. Assembly Education Chairman Patrick Diegnan, a South Plainfield Democrat, said he is drafting a bill that would keep tenure and increase the probationary period to five years from three.

That hasn’t changed Christie’s view of the union. The governor, who was born in Newark, attended Livingston public schools and sends his four children to parochial institutions, said the NJEA is an impediment.

“The union is awful,” Christie said yesterday. “The union protects the worst of the teachers. They exist to wring money out of the taxpayers.”

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