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Gov. Christie on Unions, Presidential Politics, and NCLB

By Michele McNeil — May 11, 2011 4 min read
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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, right, listens to Harlem Children’s Zone founder
Geoffrey Canada at the National Education Town Hall on May 11 in Washington.
—Andrew Councill for Education Week

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who some call a disruptor, a kingmaker, and a public schools’ destroyer, has unveiled an ambitious set of education reform proposals targeted mostly at teachers.

He wants to create a more effective teacher evaluation system tied, in part, to test scores, end lifetime tenure, and create differentiated pay. He also wants to expand charter schools and school choice in low-performing districts. But, he says, he definitely does not want to run for president.

After going toe-to-toe with U.S. Rep. George Miller at an education town hall in Washington on Wednesday, he sat down with me for a 30-minute wide-ranging interview.

He wasn’t shy about casting blame for educational woes squarely on the shoulders of the teachers’ unions. Here are excerpts:

Q. Why haven’t you tried to limit collective bargaining, as other Republican governors have done?

A. “I have no problem with collective bargaining as long as collective bargaining is fair and adversarial. A lot of times collective bargaining has been a kum-ba-ya session where nobody’s representing the taxpayers.”

Q. Are you worried if the anti-union rhetoric will rally the Democratic base in New Jersey and across the country?

A. “No. I want to get the job done. I’m not worried about the politics of this. I’m not going to take politics into account in making these decisions.”

Q. Is there any part of the Obama administration’s education agenda you disagree with?

A. “Maybe I’d want to be a little more aggressive. We’re saying many of the same things. That would be a criticism pretty much on the margins.” (He praised the president for “outstanding leadership.”)

Q. How should Education Secretary Arne Duncan use the new $700 million in Race to the Top funds, especially since your state narrowly lost out last time?

A. The same way he did the first time, “to incentivize needed reform.”

Q. If states are given more flexibility over accountability in a revision of No Child Left Behind, what would you do that you can’t do now under the law?

A. “I don’t think there’s a lot that the federal government is doing at the moment that prevents me from doing that (his own accountability system). The forces that are preventing me from doing that are internal, not external. It’s 9 percent of overall education spending in America. With the exception of Race to the Top, I don’t think federal education funding has driven any type of change. And I don’t think it will. Governors have to lead on this. And state legislatures have to lead on this.”

Q. Why are you critical of spending more money on education, but you gladly accepted a $100 million Facebook donation for Newark’s schools?

A. “It’s a good thing, but it’s a drop in the bucket. This past year, we spent $880 million on Newark. I was happy about the Facebook money because it would be money without strings that we’d be able to spend on innovation that would not be the money governed by the strict constitutional formulas that New Jersey has to comply with because of our out-of-control activist Supreme Court. But money does matter. My issue about money is I want results and accountability for what I’m spending.”

Q. Are teachers the central piece of your agenda, or do you plan to unveil more education reforms?

A. “Yeah, because I think the teacher is the central actor in improving education—teachers and principals. This is the central thesis.”

Q. (Christie says that only 23 percent of Newark’s high schoolers will graduate in four years.) So does that mean the vast majority of the district’s teachers are really bad?

A. “No.”

Q. Is the issue more complex than just teachers?

A. “Of course it is. But they’re all inter-related. The union tries to use some of the unrelated issues (socio-economic status, parental involvement) as excuses for why there can’t be success. Well, OK, if you follow the teachers’ union argument, you say you have to give up on this because they can’t learn. I don’t believe that. But I can only control the things I can control, which is to demand accountability from teachers ... and from principals ... from central office administrators.” (He went on to talk about the arguments he’s heard from teachers that evaluation systems can’t be fairly designed, and that merit pay destroys collegiality.) “These arguments are so stupid I can’t believe I have to make them and then respond to them.”

Q. Are unions going to have to be a partner in education reform?

A. “Of course.”

Q. But how will that happen when you’ve made clear you don’t like them too much?

A. “They made clear they didn’t like me before I made clear I didn’t like them. Let’s start with that. I think that question needs to be asked of them. Because I am the governor. And all of the people of the state elected me as opposed to who elected them. I’ve said all along that if they’re willing to talk about legitimate real reforms ... make real proposals about reforming teacher evaluations, about reforming teacher pay, I’m willing to sit down and talk with them. But until that time comes, I’m not wasting my time and let them divert me from what I’m doing. I’m no dummy. I’m not going to sit around and have fruitless conversations with them where they run me around the block and they run out the clock on my ability to get reform done.”

Q. How will you get your education proposals through a Democrat-controlled legislature?

A. “Gently.”

Q. Which GOP presidential contender has the best education creds?

A. “It’s much too early. I’m not going to dodge the question ultimately if I decide to support somebody. I’m not a wallflower.”