Is the NJEA waking up?

NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer
NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer

The struggle to save public schools from private, profit-making scams could well be lost. It will be lost–if it already hasn’t been lost–unless those groups  with experience in organizing, resources for getting their message out,  a history of lobbying, and a willingness to use the courts, grow some courage and take some risks. Yes, in this state, that means the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA).

There is hope in the obviously  planned decision by NJEA leaders to support the struggle against the Christie Administration’s “One Newark” plan that closes neighborhood public schools and  “launches”  many new charter schools.

NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer and Vice President Marie Blistan have spoken at rallies and committee hearings objecting to the plans of Cami Anderson, Christie’s $300,000-a-year agent in Newark. Some might argue this isn’t the NJEA’s fight. The statewide teachers union represents only a handful of Newark school employees—mostly nurses–while teachers and other classroom employees are represented by the rival AFT.

The NJEA, too, has promised a “course correction” in policy emphasis that would link what is happening in Newark and other New Jersey cities to the interests of suburban teachers who may not yet realize what is at stake if public education collapses under state control in Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Camden and other cities. The NJEA recognizes it must provide leadership in persuading its members the radical transformation of urban education under state control is not someone else’s problem.

This is how Steve Wollmer, the NJEA’s communications director, described the effort to me:

“One of the worst things Christie has done is to foment the belief that urban schools and their students are lost causes.  We are putting millions of dollars into a campaign that implicitly proves him wrong.  We are determined to push back against the privateers and corporate deformers, whose policies are destroying morale, stifling creativity, and making school miserable for children through their obsession with tying everything to data.”

Privatization isn’t simply an  urban phenomenon. Nationally, public education spends between $600 billion and $650 billion annually. It’s where the money is, an enormous industry  ripe for private profit-making. Profits are available through the growth of privately managed (but publicly-funded) charter schools, the increased use of technology—via companies like Christopher Cerf’s Amplify—and the replacement of experienced teachers with poorly paid and less trained amateurs provided by so-called “non-profit” private organizations like Teach for America (TFA) which gets a bonus for supplying inexperienced instructors to strapped public schools.

The key to successful corporate takeover is degrading the image of public education everywhere so that charters and other forms of privatized and selective education look better. A key to degrading that image is high-stakes testing that can be manipulated to show public schools are failing and well-paid teachers—with pensions included among their benefits—are at fault. All public employees looking forward to pensions have targets on their backs–now.

It was no mistake that US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a champion of privatization, contended many parents opposed Common Core curricular standards because “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — (realize) their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

That wasn’t simply an inept and racist comment. It revealed a mindset rife with contempt for the idea of public education as an essential component of an egalitarian society. Forget the history books, this country no longer embraces equality—certainly not in income and job opportunities.

Public education aims at a level playing field. Private education encourages competition—but the tendency toward exclusivity in public education was under control until the idea of charter schools combined public funding with private management and selection procedures. The level playing field has been bulldozed in places like Newark by sucking resources and students away from public schools and shifting it toward privatized charters.

The supporters of privatizers can point to the inevitable results of greed-based public policy—starved public schools, declining test scores, empty schools—and cite them as proof that traditional  public schools have failed. They created the image of failure and now they are using it to make even more money.

Inequality isn’t only a matter of greed—it is essential to the creation of a society dominated by a small number of the rich and well-educated. Public education is toxic to such an idea

NJEA Vice President Marie Blistan
NJEA Vice President Marie Blistan

and so many among the small number of  the rich and well-educated are out to destroy public education. They are helped by the well-paid wonks who believe everything is quantifiable—reducible to numbers—and, of course, numbers can then be used to prove anything.

A review of the new book by Simon Head—“Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans”– describes the relentless quantification of people as economic units—including service sector workers like, of all people, British university dons: “Head is rightly scornful of the application of computerized business systems to academic life in England where promotion now depends on academics fufilling Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) based on ‘Balanced Scorecards’ of ‘desired outputs.’” And, of course, those KPIs are used to reduce funding to UK universities.

Sound familiar?  Can you say “SGOS”?

New Jersey is ahead of the rest of the nation because Christie, for political reasons, craftily combined the obsession with testing and the movement toward privatization with the politics of resentment—blaming teachers and other public employees for budget deficits, pension problems, and school failures. Few, certainly no main-stream media, recall that such problems were really caused  by Republican tax-cutting, pension manipulation, and reductions in aid to schools and municipalities dating back to the 1990s.

I have blamed the NJEA for failing to stand up to the bully-in-chief in Trenton. I have blamed them for wishful thinking–that giving into bullies just emboldens them to behave even more outrageously. I have criticized them for condoning the charter giveaway in Camden and supporting the senate Cory Booker, a national champion of both charters and vouchers who is owned by people and organizations who have nothing in common with the people of Newark.

Wollmer and others in the NJEA tell me those days are over. The course correction is coming.

Wollmer told me,  “We are taking on Chris Christie when he lies.” But it’s just not Christie.  And it’s not just a matter of lies. The NJEA has to be brave enough to take on Democrats like George Norcross. It has to stand up to all those who would turn public education over to the highest bidder.

I hope it will.  I hope so because, frankly, the struggle to save public education will be lost without the NJEA, without its members everywhere in the state.

Is the NJEA waking up? We’ll see.

15 comments

  1. Michael Fiorillo

    The absence of any mention of the AFT, which “represents” Newark teachers, in this article speaks volumes.

    Is that because you see the AFT, led by Gates Foundation courtier Randi Weingarten, as a lost cause?

    Bob Braun: No. I do mention the AFT. The NTU leadership has expressed its gratitude to its co-unionists in the NJEA. Cami Anderson’s policies have been aimed at destroying employee representation and I am unsure the NTA could have done better if it had the contract rights. I am, however, still waiting on Randi Weingarten’s promise to return to Newark, maybe bringing AFTers from around the country with her.

    • Michael Fiorillo

      Bob, my guess is that, aside from helicoptering in to give a speech or two, you’ll be waiting a long time to see Weingarten do anything to help Newark teachers.

  2. NJGS

    As a Newark Teacher and a NJEA member (yes, I pay dues to both the NTU/AFT and NJEA) I certainly hope the NJEA is joining our fight to save our public schools. I’m so tired of this fight. I’m so tired of trying to convince others of the importance of this fight. I’m so tired of trying to explain to others that this isn’t just a fight for Newark’s Public Schools, but this is a fight for ALL public schools.

    Having the NJEA join us in this fight is important. If this is truly true, I say, “Better late than never.”

    Maybe having the NJEA join the NTU will also get the National AFT more involved in our fight.

    Right now most of the fight has been just the NTU and Newark teachers, students, families and community.

    We NEED everyone to join us. We NEED everyone to make their voices heard. We NEED everyone to march with us and shout that we will not allow our students in our public schools to be sold to the highest bidder. We NEED everyone to call and write their elected officials that Newark’s Public Education is NOT for Sale. We NEED everyone to call and write the people that produce the news and tell them what is happening to Newark’s Public Education with One Newark. We NEED everyone to realize that what is happening in Newark with public education is just the beginning spread of the cancer that will destroy the public education system throughout the state, country and world.

    Thank you Mr. Braun for standing and fighting with Newark’s Public Education Workers to Save Our Public Schools. Thank you for being the lone voice of reason and truth in the media. Thank you for telling the truth and helping our students, my students, that deserve the best public education they can get with the best teachers available. My students deserve a chance at getting a public education that will lead them to a happy and fulfilled life where they are more than just a person that can take a test, but instead critical thinkers that will be the next leaders of our country.

    If this fight in Newark for public education fails, I am not only worried about what will happen to public education, but I’m worried what will happen to our futures.

    Bob Braun: Great comment and thanks for the kind words.

  3. P. Grunther

    First of all, thank goodness Bob is back…10 days without one of your blogs leaves me feeling sad and lonely in the fight against privatization since other than a few other blogs, the mainstream media is simply NOT reporting on this phenomenon. Secondly, I was encouraged when I recently attended the NJEA Winter Leadership Conference and saw that they had added a workshop to their program about who is behind so-called Education Reform. I was already signed up for a different workshop but I’m planning on attending that one in the Summer and I’m looking forward to hearing what the NJEA has planned in regard now that they’ve woken up to the danger of what is taking place. Lastly, I am an Italian teacher and I was struck when I recently came across the following quote made years ago by the eminent Italian author and intellectual Italo Calvino (my translation to follow)
    Un Paese che distrugge la sua scuola non lo fa mai solo per i soldi, perché le risorse mancano, o i costi sono eccessivi. Un Paese che demolisce la sua istruzione è già governato da quelli che dalla diffusione del sapere hanno solo da perdere.
    [Italo Calvino]
    A country that destroys its schools doesn’t do it purely for monetary reasons because resources are lacking or costs are excessive. A country that demolishes its educational system is already governed by those who stand to lose from the spreading of knowledge.

    Bob Braun: You and Calvino are absolutely right. You should read the New York Review of Books piece I cited in the blog. It’s available free on line. The educational system is moving toward a pyramid-shaped society with an empty band through the middle where the middle class once was. Thanks for your kind words.

  4. Joe

    Not only is the mainstream media not reporting on the destruction of our schools, it is aiding and abetting the very people who are determined to privatize our schools in the name of phony baloney “educational reform” against the supposed “status quo.” Michelle Rhee is treated like some kind of goddess or hero in the mainstream media while unions are regularly demeaned, vilified and demonized. The destroyer in chief for NJ, Christie, is loud and vicious in his swift boating of NJ public schools, the teachers and especially of the NJEA, his favorite whipping boy. He gets plenty of air support from the mainstream media, various right wing outlets and the putrid NJ 101.5. Thank goodness for the blogs of Bob Braun, Jersey Jazzman, Diane Ravitch, Mother Crusader and many others who are voices in the wilderness.

    Bob Braun: Sad but true about the main stream media. It’s amazing how pervasive is the bias against unions when corporate peccadillos are accepted as appropriate business as usual. But, of course, corporations own newspapers.

  5. Tim

    It is amazing what money can buy!

    NJEA was caught completely off guard with the corporate connections in our political government. Hopefully, we can catch up on this takeover! People are starting to become aware of what is actually happening, thanks to bloggers such as yourself, hopefully it is not too late! Many educators are still buried in so much “reform” garbage, that they are unable to look around them to see the destruction taking place!

    Thank you for your insightful and informative articles, thank you for putting up a fight for our children and our Democracy!

    Bob Braun: Business trends apparently take hold faster than cultural changes so the privatizers were ‘way ahead of the curve when the circumstances fell into place making investment in charter school management a smart idea. The NJEA wasn’t the only organization caught off guard. We all were.

    • Stephen Graff

      The NJEA may have been caught off guard several years ago when all these changes–ushered in by Christie and his bipartisan coalition–began, but they have no excuse now for their inaction. A big assembly bill is coming up for a vote this Thursday that could, if passed, actually halt many of these changes in their tracks, and there’s hardly a peep from them. Local and county unions aren’t mobilizing for this vote which means that the word hasn’t come down from the state organization. I have no idea why that is at this late stage. It would be great to get an explanation.

  6. Kevin

    It is amazing how Adolf Bob deletes any coment that execises the 1st amendment. Bob followa his own rules. Keep deleting Bobbie.

    Bob Braun: I didn’t delete your comment. I won’t delete this one either because it demonstrates how intelligent you really are. Great support for my point of view. And, by the way, The Star-Ledger might not like your pretending to be an employee and using their email. I’ve sent a note over and suggest they check out your ISP. Keep’em coming, genius.

  7. Glen

    Bob let all comments be heard.

    Bob Braun: I will when they are on point, respectful, and not slanderous, obscene, scatological and known to be untrue to me. This is my blog. You’re welcome not to pay any attention to it. If you want to hang with the feckless and the inane, try posting at The Star-Ledger’s site. They welcome all comers because they get paid per click. I don’t. I don’t get paid by anyone.

    • NJGS

      Kevin and Glen,
      Are you kidding me? Since Mr. Braun privately owns this website I totally understand why all comments are screened.

      If you want to make a point, then I suggest you make the point without insulting Mr. Braun or using language that is offensive. Kevin, I find your “Adolf Bob” offensive and Glen I find your comments equally offensive.

      I have read numerous comments on Mr. Braun’s blog that did not agree with Mr. Braun, but were written in a positive tone. I suggest you follow the rules of humanity. agree to disagree, but do it respectfully if you wish your point of view to be posted and read by others.

  8. Kate

    Not that Mr. Braun needs a defender, but I’ve certainly seen plenty of comments that were not in agreement with the point of view expressed in BOB’S blog. Perhaps, gentlemen, you need to express yourselves without resorting to obscenities, slander, or whatever seems to be your preferred means of expression. Or get your own blog…

  9. Rob Broderick

    Bob: Back in the prehistoric era when I worked at NJEA, NJEA was warning of the dangers of privatization. Its argument never really went away, but the media either ignored it or said it was that NJEA was afraid of accountability. Neither NJEA nor its members are afraid of real accountability, just the phony kind being peddled by those who stand to profit from public schools being closed and private schools being put in their place.
    Rob Broderick
    P.S. I’m glad you’re back too.

    Bob Braun: Thanks, Rob. I agree with most of what you write here but the NJEA’s capitulation on Norcross in Camden and Booker in the Senate race undermine its stand against privatization. The union can’t try to destroy Lesniak–a real friend on pensions–because of his voucher views and then sign on to quasi-vouchers in Camden and campaign for Cory Booker who is an avatar for the idea of vouchers.

  10. Anna D'Antonio

    Spring break wasn’t exciting without you Bob! Bravo for yet another, well written article! All I can say is: thank you for being the voice of Newark: the students, their families & their teachers!

    Bob Braun: Thank you.

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