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Whitman Confronts N.J. Union on Divisive Issues

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Within weeks of taking office, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey has made clear her willingness to take on the formidable political clout of the New Jersey Education Association.

Speaking to an N.J.E.A. conference this month, Mrs. Whitman vowed to pursue a school-voucher program for Jersey City and the recertification of teachers--issues that are anathema to the union.

The public confrontation so early in Mrs. Whitman's term has observers wondering whether the union's power will diminish under the new Republican administration. Some of the N.J.E.A.'s hardball political strategies of the past few years, the analysts suggest, may be on the verge of backfiring.

Union officials dispute the idea that their political actions may be jeopardizing their agenda. "We still have a very good relationship with [Speaker of the Assembly Garabed] Haytaian and [President of the Senate Donald T.] DiFrancesco,'' said Karen Joseph, a spokeswoman for the N.J.E.A.

"We are able to work with Republicans and Democrats,'' she added. "The fact that Mrs. Whitman came to the conference we took as a very positive action on her part.''

But others--particularly members of the Democratic minority in the legislature, who still resent the union's abandonment of their traditionally close alliance--are less sanguine. "They don't know yet who their friends are and who their enemies are,'' said Assemblyman William J. Pascrell Jr.

Voucher 'Test Case'

In her speech, Mrs. Whitman pledged not to become part of any "group think'' by stereotyping the N.J.E.A. as an organization concerned primarily with pensions, salaries, and fringe benefits.

At the same time, though, she said she expected the union to join her in trying new ideas.

"Rather than attacking a very limited test of school vouchers in one city, you should lead the fight for magnet schools and other types of school-choice programs,'' Governor Whitman said.

"Rather than just saying no to proposals for teacher recertification ... you should work with us to design the best professional-development opportunities for teachers in the nation,'' she added.

New Jersey is one of only a few states to grant lifetime teaching certificates. School administrators have been pushing for a shift to five-year renewable certificates. (See Education Week, Dec. 8, 1993.)

While indicating that there is room for negotiation on recertification, union leaders are adamantly opposed to the proposed vouchers, which Jersey City parents could use at private or public schools.

"This is really a test case in many ways to see whether her influence is greater or the N.J.E.A.'s is greater in Trenton,'' noted one political observer.

Union-Democratic Split

Relations between the union and Democratic lawmakers began to sour in 1990, with the passage of court-ordered school-finance-reform legislation.

Union leaders were furious that a provision of the measure shifted teacher pensions from the state to districts, with the prospect of turning pension funding into a collective-bargaining issue.

In the 1991 legislative elections, the N.J.E.A. endorsed 46 Republicans and three Democrats.

Republicans won in a landslide, taking over both legislative chambers and building up veto-proof majorities against the Democratic Governor, James J. Florio.

The N.J.E.A.'s legislative agenda was successful under the G.O.P. majority. Pension funding reverted to the state.

In last year's gubernatorial race, the union opted not to endorse either Mr. Florio or Mrs. Whitman. But it launched a massive advertising campaign in opposition to vouchers. (See Education Week, Oct. 27, 1993.)

The result is, "She's not beholden to them,'' said Nate Scovronick, the director of the New Jersey affairs program at Princeton University.

But Mr. Scovronick traces the union's current situation to 1990. "Now they don't have a Governor they supported, and the pension issue may be in danger again, and funding isn't stable,'' he said.

Sen. John H. Ewing, the chairman of the Senate education committee, is working on a bill that would fund teacher pensions on a per-pupil basis, which would ultimately mean that districts with higher-paid teachers would have to foot some of the bill.

Hitting the 'High, Hard Ones'

Still, the union has a powerful ally in Speaker Haytaian, who is running for the U.S. Senate.

"Can she drag her leadership along in the legislature? I say she can't right now,'' said Sen. John A. Lynch, the Senate minority leader. "She's not going to risk political capital if she doesn't believe she can't get it done in both houses. She can't hit the high, hard ones until after the November election.''

Some educators worry that the maneuvering may hinder school-improvement efforts.

"It's a little bit of [Mrs. Whitman] sticking it to the teachers and the teachers acting like a union, and nobody really looking at how you teach kids better,'' said William Firestone, the director of the Center for Educational Policy Analysis at Rutgers University.

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