Governor Chris Christie, after proclaiming 2011 the “year of education reform” in January, is running out of time to make good on overhauling New Jersey’s school system before lawmakers wrap up the current session.
Christie, 49, a first-term Republican, said during a Nov. 18 speech at the University of Notre Dame that the teachers’ union has a “$130 million political slush fund” to thwart his plans. He said the New Jersey Education Association uses it “to help their friends and punish their enemies.”
Christie has urged the Democratic-led Legislature to act before the session ends in January on bills to overhaul schools, as well as ethics and civil-service rules. His education measures take aim at tenure and pay, and would offer vouchers to students from poor families. Union and Democratic opposition has stalled his plans, while a fresh budget debate will begin with the new year, threatening to bury his efforts.
“Now is his best chance to push for this and bring pressure on the Democratic Legislature,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics in Lawrenceville. “Right now he’s as popular as he’s ever been: The iron is hot.”
Christie, who ended 12 years of Republican losses in statewide elections when he defeated Democrat Jon Corzine in 2009, had a 56 percent job approval rating in a Nov. 16 Quinnipiac University poll. Democrats preserved their 24-16 Senate edge in mid-term elections this month and picked up a seat in the Assembly for a 48-32 majority.
The governor’s education overhaul calls for more charter schools, revised tenure rules and more teacher accountability for the 100,000 students he said are “trapped” in almost 200 failing schools. Yet the state spends a third of its budget, averaging $17,700 a year for each primary and secondary school student -- $24,000 in Newark -- on schools, he said.
“There is nothing more important in my public life than winning this,” Christie told a Law School crowd in Notre Dame, Indiana. “If I win this, 10 years from now there will be another kid from Newark standing here who graduated from the public schools in Newark and became governor of the state of New Jersey. He or she will be here because we did our moral duty.”
The proposals led the 195,500-member education association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, to run television advertisements attacking the governor. The union intends to air fresh ads in about a week, Steve Wollmer, a spokesman, said in a Nov. 18 telephone interview.
In the past 22 months, the union has spent almost $20 million on ads “just savaging me,” Christie said. “My children would barely recognize me after watching these things, about what an awful person I am and how much I hate teachers, gym and otherwise.”
The teachers’ association collects about $105 million a year in dues, Wollmer said. U.S. Internal Revenue Service tax returns for 2009 show the union had $120.6 million in revenue and $108.6 million in expenses.
In an April interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News, Christie called New Jersey teachers “wonderful public servants that care deeply,” and their union’s leaders “political thugs.” He repeated that characterization Nov. 18.
“We have to stand up to probably the most powerful political force in America -- that is, the teachers unions and their extraordinary amount of money,” the governor said.
Christie’s talk of revamping education helped make him a favorite of contributors to Republicans around the nation, including Home Depot co-founder Kenneth Langone, hedge-fund manager Paul Singer and industrialist David Koch, who all urged him to run for president. Christie opted not to run, citing his intention to finish the job he was elected to do.
Legislative leaders Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, an East Orange Democrat, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a West Deptford Democrat, haven’t followed Christie’s schedule for passing his proposals.
The session ends Jan. 9, according to Derek Roseman, a spokesman for Sweeney. Any bills not passed by then would need to be reintroduced in the term that begins the next day, restarting the process. Dworkin said any delay may push consideration of Christie’s measures into March or April, a time generally dominated by fiscal issues including the governor’s budget proposal for the year that starts July 1.
“The governor has never shied away from trying to force the Legislature into working on his timetable,” Roseman said. “The Senate is committed to moving forward on education reform but we’re going to do it on a timeline that makes sense for getting it done, not a timeline that makes political sense for the governor.”
Tom Hester, a spokesman for Oliver, said in a statement that members of her party plan to push their own education package. He declined to give specifics.
“The governor’s input is welcome, but his education agenda has so far been tainted by poisonous rhetoric and politics and been a failure for children and property taxpayers, so we’ll continue working on our own education reforms,” he said. “The governor will get the chance to decide whether to stand with Democrats to reform education or play politics” by blocking it.
The teachers’ union is looking for sponsors for legislation that proposes tenure changes, allowing parents to be excused from work without penalty to attend school functions, smaller class sizes and expanded kindergarten, Wollmer said. He said he expects the bills to be introduced as early as the first week of December.
“We have a substantive proposal out there,” Wollmer said. “It has the attention of lawmakers, media people. It’s a well-thought-out plan based on the research. My guess is that’s not something he planned on.”