SELLOUT: Why the NJEA’s testing compromise with Christie was a mistake

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    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.

                Everything.

                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.

17 comments

  1. JCW

    I see some of your points, Bob. But to be honest–the NJEA works for its members. I pay dues–not the parents or students. They are supposed to be protecting us. This may sound selfish, but so be it. The parents in this state need to start raising a little more hell to protect their children from this testing frenzy, because no one listens to us.

    • Lisa Rodgers

      JCW — Sorry your wrong – the NJEA flew on the tail feathers of parent organizations. Save Our Schools NJ has been fighting for this legislation and NJEA snuck in, said they were going to fight for parents/kids and not compromise – yet they did – NJEA lost – a lot more. I said it in a previous post by Bob – Christie did this on purpose – now watch him sing how NJEA sold out to parents…… Now the worse part – Parents are going to be upset with the teachers who actually were fighting for the kids. But the powers that be at NJEA failed their members. This “win” – watch – stay tuned – it will all be for naught.

      • Brendan Gallagher

        How the NJEA took the deal and ran just proves every bad thing that is thought and said about them. Just another syndicate (albeit made up of largely good ‘individuals’, but au mass… taking what they can get and throwing anyone without a union card under a bus. So, is Christie (and I’m not a huge fan), really that wrong is distrusting them and being ‘sick of those people?’

        They took what they could get and screwed parents and kids. This is why so many distrust them. They earned it.

    • jackie

      The njea staff are out to protect themselves, cushy benefits and free health and private pension packages. They need the members so their pension and benefits continues to be funded while public school employees contribute towards their own insurance and pension. The njea only put up a fight as a facade to line their own pockets. They dont work for our best interest.

      • Guerrilla Counselor

        Great point, but what will it take for public school teachers, across the state, to come together and fight back? The teachers in my wife’s school act like lambs to the slaughter, not speaking up and eschewing anyone else ( such as my wife) who does.

        What is going on in NJ and across the nation, is a conspiracy between big business and the government to dismantle the public education system–which is supposed to be guaranteed to every child of a U.S. Citizen under law–in order to turn it into a profit-making enterprise.

        Chris “Il Duce” Christie has funneled nearly $2 billion to “pension fund managers during his two terms in office, substantially more than any of his predecessors?

        If the State of New Jersey is so poor that it can’t fund the pension system, as he claims, then why is the Garden State ranked the second WEALTHIEST state in the Union, according to BusinessWeek. And if New Jersey’s public school teachers are so God-awful, then why are the schools they serve in ranked between first and second place in the nation, depending upon the source?

        The War on Teachers is a microcosm of the War on the Middle Class that has been raging for the past 30+ years since Reagan fired the air traffic controllers. Middle and lower income workers have been losing financial ground while the wealthiest one percent have been gaining.

        In Florida, for example, they are considering building dormitories for teachers in that state who are non-unionized and receive such low wages that they cannot afford housing on their own.

        I don’t know about you, but that reminds me of the former Soviet Union and communist China.

        It’s time for the pitchforks to come out, folks. Take a page from the Civil Rights and antiwar movements of th ’60s. We should all be hitting the streets, demonstrating and committing acts of civil disobedience until we bring this corrupt system to its knees and take back our country.

        …And don’t look to the NJEA’s endorsement; they’ve already sold out.

        Bob Braun: Great piece. Thank you. I may post it on my Facebook page. I would only make one note–I don’t think the war on unionized teachers is a microcosm of the war on the middle class. I think it’s a crucial, defining battle–like Gettysburg, Stalingrad or the Bulge. Teaching and other public service jobs were the bridges to the middle class for working class men and women of all colors and ethnic backgrounds. Now these jobs are turned over to the children of the rich–through TFA–who will scab for a year or so, catch a break on their student loans, and then go off to Wall Street. The future of America will be decided in these wars and, I agree, too, the unions are simply not up to the fight.

  2. Christine

    Don’t know why the Governor thought this bill was all about teachers in the first place. Who decided that he and the NJEA had the sole rights to decide this legislation–like they alone own the system or are the only interested parties? The issues and stakeholders are much broader. This legislation should have gone to a vote. Three words: Refuse the Test.

  3. Scott White

    Bob, as always, you are right on. If we are for education, we are for kids, first, and our own self-interest comes second. Any other action proves Christie right, that we are in this for ourselves, not for the kids.

    On the other hand, and I have written about this extensively, there is a positive aspect to common assessments and common learning objectives. There is something troubling about kids in rooms next door to eachother learning totally different things in biology or having vastly different standards in Arkansas than NJ. I do think the idea of all students reaching the benchmarks of the PARCC is ludicrous. Like the old Regents, there should be two diplomas, one for meeting the standards of the old HSPA test and another for reaching higher standards like the PARCC, IB, AP or SAT Subject Tests.

  4. Jacman

    Statewide and national opt-out, supported and encouraged by the unions. These tests are child abuse and serve no valid educational purpose—- just a mechanism to enrich corporations.

  5. Steven Delpome

    Mr. Braun (and commenter JCW),

    This post is 100% spot on. Yet there is even more to be said. JCW, your union did not protect you in this case. It did the opposite. The combination of Christie’s executive order and the fact that tenure reform laws remain in place have the result of making it EASIER for you to be arbitrarily fired than under the original words of TEACHNJ. More power has been given to administration under this order, not less. Admin can now arbitrarily find fault with teachers they’d like to cut, for whatever reason, and now, said teacher will be on the fast track to tenure removal because even the slightest protection that test scores might have provided, proof that the teacher was doing a good job, has been removed! Essentially what we have now are wildly vague evaluation guidelines combined with most of the decision making power in administrations hands. The NJEA has been fighting for short term victories since 2010, while Christie has been playing the long game and this just might be check mate.

    • Becca Field

      Steven – I agree with your assessment of Christie’s checkmate. But the legislation that was advocated for was a pawn in his game too. To win we have to move off the board. We have to stop playing his game.

  6. Becca Field

    First the bill that was being pushed afforded no real protection for my kids who still would have been tested and suffer the consequence of money spent on tests, technology and test prep. That is true now and would have been if the bill had been signed. It never was about the kids. Parents expended lots of energy mobilizing over something that would have made no visible difference in next school year under the guise of ‘it was the best we could hope for’.

    No one was fighting for our kids or the preservation of public education as you rightly suggest is necessary. Parent groups formed alliances with NJEA, PSA, and others to put forth a united front. But it was a Monty Python war – they missed the real enemy. They were not fighting the real evils. They were distracted by small spats rather than attack the heart of the beast.

    We cannot succeed until we recognize that CCSS sets the foundation for all that is happening. In a few years we will not send out kids to public schools but to Pearson schools – the company that writes the tests and huge amounts of CCSsS curriculum.

    If we want to protect our kids and public education we need to get on the front line of the real war and get the unions there with us, by necessity if not by choice.

  7. TK

    I believe this campaign—the corporate push for Common Core and the privatization of public education—is many orders of magnitude more dire than most people are willing to see.

    The Christie team, being privy to the strategy behind the broader conquest and destruction of the public sector, are working as sappers. They will exploit the NJEA leadership in its wishful desire for self-preservation. Teachers need jobs, it is true. In this fight, however, against a force with massive financial advantage and a singular purpose which goes far beyond Newark, Camden, Paterson, and the state of New Jersey, this willingness to negotiate—to capitulate—may prove tragically short-sighted.

    This is a war. The defenders, to a degree, have themselves declared it.

    It is not simply business. It is not just another contract negotiation. The forces behind Christie will not stop coming unless they are faced with a total commitment from the public—sufficient to deny them any chance of success—at which point, they will move to probe easier prey, in another community, which they deem to be sufficiently vulnerable.

    The onus in New Jersey is now completely on the conscience of individual citizens. The union has spoken. To suggest that the need for a paycheck is more of a motivation than the devotion to the care of a child’s safety and learning environment is cold calculus. The Christie network have been deliberate enough to run the figures, make a play, and tear at the seam in order to split the broader coalition of teachers, parents, the NJEA, and community leaders.

    This outcome is predictable and the union did not disappoint the aggressor.

    It is now up to community leaders, and the community at large, to save the NJEA from themselves, or the NJEA is liable to be cut off and subsumed. What will remain after public education in Newark will be a veiled theocratic/autocratic system, costumed in the uniform of the day. When there is no opposition remaining of any sort, we will then be treated to the true face of the conqueror, and not just the mask. What do we suppose is there? A more beneficent countenance? Something kindly and sweet?

    I respect that Bob knows better than to buy this sop.

    In failing to commit to this fight—totally, because it is necessary and just—it is assured that the struggle will fall to others, and others may continue to fall. Much more than jobs are at stake here, and the war chest of privatizers—as modern day lords—is bigger and badder than our shrinking paychecks will ever be.

    It hurts to see when you’ve been had. Believing the assault was really okay is in no way the mark of healthy achievement.

    When will the abiding traumas of the financially comfortable drive them to move beyond their shameful self interest?

  8. Educator

    Bob

    I received a call at home from a teacher in my district late last night, after this story broke. These teachers are livid at the NJEA leadership, for what it is worth.

    I also spoke with some superintendent colleagues of mine and they are patiently waiting for a response from the leader of NJASA (Rich Bozza). I would not be surprised to see him face a “no confidence” vote this year. Some entire counties are already considering not sending their dues in this year! Crazy stuff.

  9. Abigail Shure

    Bob,

    As usual you are 100% correct. I would also like to take your argument a step further. As a sideline observer of the AFT convention in LA, I would suggest that Weingarten and Co. are selling us out big time as well. Public education is finished in New Orleans and well on the way to its demise in Newark and Chicago. Teachers are being deprived of due process protections in LA and elsewhere. It is a sorry day for American democracy and American children.

  10. Bill Wolfe

    Bob – superb.

    The CWA and public employee unions are making exactly the same mistake on opposing Christie budget, pension, millionaire’s tax et al and playing right into Christie’s hands in the process.

    Seems like they’ve lost sight of the 99% who lose under Christie political ideology and policy agenda.

    The Democrats make the same mistakes too.

    One would think that 5 years into the Christie reign, they would understand what they are dealing with.

    Bob Braun : Are you suggesting they should support or have supported all that?

    • Bill Wolfe

      No, of course I am not saying that Dems should support Christie’s agenda! .

      What I am saying is that they have opposed Christie on grounds that open them up to the sane criticism as you note Christie has made of teachers and unions: that they are self-nterested and greedy.

      Look at the debate on teh Gov.’s budget was framed on pension payments – greedy public employees preventing Christie from funding other important needs – pitting public workers against not only taxpayers, but other needy constituencies.

      Look at how the millionaire’s tax was framed as a source of funding the pension system, instead of one of basic fairness and providing revenues to support a myriad of public needs.

      The unions need to form coalitions with people harmed by the GOv.’splices – the 99%.

      Instead, they are making the debate only about pensions and benefits for public worker – exactly what Christie wants!

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