Isn’t the NJEA opposed to vouchers?

Remember when the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) was so opposed to private school vouchers that it would turn its back on an old friend just to punish him for supporting them?

How the NJEA graphically depicts vouchers on its website
How the NJEA graphically depicts vouchers on its website

When, two years ago, it tried to unseat long-time state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union) because he supported vouchers? When it even endorsed a pro-Christie faux Democrat to get back at Lesniak, a man who, for 30 years, supported the NJEA’s positions in the Legislature?

This is what Steve Wollmer, an NJEA spokesman, told me then about politicians who favor vouchers: “This is a bellwether issue for us. It’s no small thing. When you have a legislator who is, in effect, calling for the defunding of public education by hundreds of millions of dollars, it shouldn’t be surprising that the NJEA would not be supporting him.’’

Well, that was then and this is now. Now, the state’s largest teachers’ union won’t endorse a Democratic candidate in the primary for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey even when one of the candidates, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, is a nationally known champion of private school vouchers—and has been for as long as he has been in public life. If he made it to the U.S. Senate, he could join with Republican senators and potentially defund public education by the billions, not just millions, of dollars.

The union’s endorsement of the other candidates, U.S. Rep Rush Holt (D-12th) or U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th), could be the deciding factor in the Aug. 13 primary. (Yes, I know Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) is sort of running, too). The deciding factor, because a well-organized army of NJEA members would help turnout in this bizarrely-timed election—(thanks, Gov. Christie, you’ve always been such a champion of using votes to decide issues. Right.)

Full disclosure here. I am a consultant to the Holt campaign. But the point is it makes absolutely no sense for the NJEA to sit this one out and thereby enhance Booker’s chances. Unlike Holt and Pallone, Booker does not have a pro-union record. Unlike Holt and Pallone, Booker seemed to try to sink the Obama campaign by calling its attacks on Mitt Romney “nauseating.” But this is about school vouchers.

School vouchers—that “bellwether” issue. The issue that, in 2004, led the NJEA to compare voucher supporters to Watergate conspirators. It specifically named Booker as part of a right-wing effort to privatize public education. It’s a good piece. You should read it. I agree with it. I was on one of the trips to Milwaukee the piece describes, and Booker was there, too.

I distinctly remember walking into a voucher school where every visitor was greeted with a hug by a student who said, “Jesus loves you.” As a Catholic, I agree with that sentiment as well, but isn’t there something in the U.S. Constitution about mixing government with religion?

So, I agree with the NJEA’s position on vouchers. I just can’t figure out why the NJEA doesn’t.

I can’t figure out why it wants to send to Washington to replace Frank Lautenberg a man who is anti-union and pro-voucher.

This is what the NJEA is officially saying now. Vouchers, says union spokesman Steve Baker, “are still an important issue to us, and we are still adamantly opposed to them, but they’re not the only issue.’’ He added that, because the NJEA decided not to endorse anyone for the Aug. 13 primary, the issue simply didn’t come up.

True, the NJEA endorsed state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) for governor before her primary but that was because, “We knew who the candidates would be,’’ Baker says.

“After the primary, we will reconsider,’’ he says. Right. Like Steve Lonegan would ever be endorsed by the NJEA (Well, who knows?).

Privately, union leaders have told me they simply don’t want to anger either Holt or Pallone by endorsing one over the other. What nonsense. What’s Rush going to do—introduce a bill ending tenure? What’s Frank going to do—promote ending dues check-offs? Holt and Pallone spent their entire careers supporting public education and fending off attacks on it, like vouchers.

The NJEA could make a real difference in this primary. It has the chance to strike a blow against vouchers nationally by repudiating Cory Booker, one of the staunchest champions of the effort to rob public schools of needed resources.

Too bad it wants to be Bert Lahr’s lion instead. New Jersey’s teachers deserve better. New Jersey’s schools deserve better. New Jersey deserves better.

  1. I agree with a lot you’ve said here, Bob, but I can still see how NJEA wants to sit this one out.

    Barring some unforeseen event, Booker’s going to win the primary, and then the general. I’d love to see NJEA endorse Holt, but I really don’t think that will change the tide nearly as much as you imply it will. And NJEA’s real worry is four more years of Christie without a Democratic legislature to keep him in check. If the Democrats lose enough seats, this becomes a right-to-work state. That’s what keeps this teacher up at night.

    Booker is terrible on education, as I’ve documented ad nauseum at my blog. But even I have to admit he’s good on a lot of other things, and we simply can’t afford to let any seats go to the Republicans in the Senate; the stakes are too high. If NJEA jumping into the primary gives Lonnegan even the slightest better chance of winning, it’s not worth it.

    Further: I’ve been trying to find out where Holt stands on Race To The Top. So far, I’ve heard nothing. I’d feel a lot better about you taking NJEA to the woodshed for not getting behind him if Holt came out forcibly and said RTTT is a disaster, SecEd Arne Duncan should be fired (he should), no more federal money should go to TFA, the proliferation of charters needs to be halted (especially for-profit charters using non-profit shells), standardized testing needs to be pulled back, Common Core needs to be vetted before it’s implemented, test-based teacher evaluation is an affront to mathematics and social science research, etc.

    That last one particularly irks me. If anyone in this race should understand the obvious defects of VAMs and SGPs and all the other junk science being used to push teacher “accountability,” it’s a real scientist like Rush Holt. How about standing up against this stuff, Rush? You know the math is a joke and what, for example, NJDOE is doing with AchieveNJ is innumerate. Stand up and say so (if you have and I missed it, I apologize).

    Vouchers aren’t really a national issue. There won’t be a national voucher bill, and Obama’s clearly against them. There are many other things in national education policy that our next Senator needs to take stands on.

    Booker will undoubtedly take the wrong stands on most of them. But I’m not sure Holt or Pallone will take the correct ones. If they want the teacher vote, they’re going to have to distinguish themselves from Booker on more than just vouchers.

    BTW: glad you’re here.

  2. Thanks and good points all, except one–Steve Lonegan could not beat any of the Democratic candidates, including Oliver. There is, however, a real chance one of New Jersey’s most prominent stealth Republicans, Booker, will do a lot of damage in Washington if he is elected. The issue isn’t party but ideology.

  3. I like that I have to solve a math problem to comment here. When the blog starts asking for geometry proofs, I’ll be in trouble…

    OK, fair enough on Lonegan. Still: I think Holt and/or Pallone (and/or Oliver, who clearly has no shot and, as a drone of the Joe D machine, shouldn’t) need to do better than disavowing vouchers to energize the teacher base. Speaking for myself, it’s really the least of my worries when it comes to the Senate race.

    Let’s see someone take a stand against RTTT. I’ll be the first to call for NJEA to endorse any candidate who does: it would be worth alienating the other two (OK, three) to back the one who is willing to stand up to the nonsense Obama has foisted on public education.

  4. Reading the blog and the exchanges led me to return to a blog I did myself some time back, “Call me Voucher: The “Choice” and the “Opportunity” We Cannot Afford.” And sure enough there were references to your columns, Bob, all good ones, and I drew from them. Bear with one repetition here, but first, I need to frame the issue (from the beginning of the blog):

    “I’m a voucher. I take public money and pay for private and parochial school, or some of it. And, I may be “choice,” and I may be “opportunity,” but I am not either when neither choice nor opportunity exist. What I am, though, is an exercise in state fiscal irresponsibility.”

    I had provided words from “both sides” of the debate and, concluded with those who find vouchers more than a questionable device, and said this:

    “Then, too, there is the Star Ledger’s keeper of the flame, the insightful Bob Braun, applying his mental scalpel to vouchers, and beyond them, to conclude, sadly, that there has been no commitment, ever, by the state to really see that poor kids get a chance, a choice, an opportunity. And, he doesn’t see it coming now.”

    So, now, I’d ask as I did when I wrote the blog, “Can choice exist if there is no way to exercise it?” And, conclude, as I did then about a voucher plan for New Jersey:

    “In short, this is an ill-conceived plan, one that we can’t afford, not whether we call it “choice” or “opportunity” or, the straight name, voucher. There is no money to pay for the program. And, anyway, the responsibilities that the state has—like public schools—ought to have the first call on public resources.”

    I’ll support the candidate that sees it my way.

  5. […] As Bob Braun – formerly of the Star-Ledger, currently advising Holt – pointed out on his blog, Holt and Booker differ on vouchers, which is admittedly no small thing. Braun, however, went a […]

  6. Polling indicates that NJEA support (even with a full-out GOTV by the union) may not be enough. While within the margin of error, our last poll shows Booker leading both Congressman among NJEA households — so they’d really need to make a negative push on Booker. Moreover, both congressmen have been strong allies of the NJEA. Picking one could tick off the other. Why do that if you think it won’t change the eventual outcome? [Although picking neither may tick off both.] Either way, your point is taken. Vouchers has been a litmus test for the NJEA … until now.

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