The problem with the compromise reached between the Christie Administration and the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) over the uses of high-stakes testing is this: The teachers’ union, rightly concerned about inappropriate uses of test results to evaluate teachers, won valuable, if temporary, protections for its members. However, the union, which has, for months, promoted a partnership with parent groups and others concerned about the damage the tests would do to students achieved no protections at all for children.
The union was happy to allow organizations like Save Our Schools—New Jersey to provide it with political cover so that its self-interested opposition to wrong-headed teacher evaluations could genuinely appear to be a much broader concern with the corporate reform movement that is driving much of these changes. The NJEA did everything it could to assume leadership of this growing and increasingly comprehensive anti-corporate movement but, in the end, in the last few days, it took what short-term advantages it could get and ran, abandoning the larger issues embraced by its former partners.
Teacher unions historically have invoked broader interests to promote their own self-interest. Nothing new about that. What is new, however, is a toxic political climate in which that strategy produces nothing but anger that is often aimed at classroom teachers and even the institution of public education itself. Chris Christie tapped into a deep well of resentment against that strategy back in 2009 and 2010 by repeatedly and unfairly bashing teachers and their unions for their “greed” and “selfishness.” He was supported by, arguably, a majority of the state’s residents—and by the editorial pages of most New Jersey newspapers.
I thought the union’s leadership had recognized the danger of this approach—indeed, now, it must see the collapse of the political strength of teacher unionism might very well lead to a collapse of support for public education generally. I was assured by NJEA’s leaders that the organization recognized it had to form real and genuine alliances with parents and others to save, not just the specific protections and benefits it had won for members, but public education itself.
Because, after all, in a corporate, privatized, all-charter/voucher system, tenure doesn’t exist. Good benefits and pensions don’t exist. Understanding the need for good training and experience does not exist. Professionalism doesn’t exist. Autonomy doesn’t exist. By failing to bring along parents and others, the NJEA and other unions risk all of what they have accomplished.
All of it.
Not just a few percentage points of weight in a teacher evaluation formula.
I have received private messages from those who demand I look at the practicalities of the NJEA’s position. The threat of a veto. The inherent weakness of organizations like SOS-NJ that are not based on employee interests. I am told I must be realistic by people whose opinions I trust and respect.
I understand. But I have been covering teacher strikes since I was 19 and walked the streets of Perth Amboy with the AFT’s Bob Bates. I have watched hundreds of teachers arrested and some beaten on the streets of Newark. I have watched the arc of militance rise from the 1968 free-for-all fights over representation and then crash to the fearfulness and timidity of harassed teachers now.
What a half-century of observing has led me to believe is this:
Public education is no longer a sure thing. It is on its way out in Newark and other New Jersey cities—and already doesn’t exist in New Orleans. Some of the most liberal presidents we have had—including Barack Obama and Bill Clinton—support corporatism and privatization on a national level and the feds are spending billions to achieve it. The Democrats for Education Reform (DFER)—yes, that Democrats—call teacher unionism “a dam that must be burst” in order for schools to be reformed.
Union leaders must ditch the helpless fatalism of recent years and either decide to believe in something worth fighting for or just give up the fight. I remember talking to the AFT’s Randi Weingarten about the flawed contract with Cami Anderson’s Newark Public Schools. She said, “We had no choice–we had to face reality.” Well, that contract has hurt city teachers and its precedence value didn’t do much for the NJEA’s teachers in Paterson.
Here, the NJEA had choices, too. Frankly, the reduction of weight given to test results in evaluations—from 30 percent to 10 percent in two years—is not worth the support the NJEA might have received if it refused to bargain with anti-public education, anti-public employee frauds like Christie and Sweeney; if it insisted that, either real protections for children and classroom freedom be part of the agreement, or it would push for a veto fight–embarrassing and potentially damaging to Christie’s presidential campaign.
My friends in the NJEA—you need supporters more now than ever. Your members need those supporters. Public education needs more supporters. You didn’t gain any by doing this.