Shift in Education Politics Seen in N.J. Election Battle

By Jonathan Weisman — October 23, 1991 7 min read

Next month’s legislative elections in New Jersey could mark a major realignment in the state’s education politics, analysts predicted last week.

At the core of the shift stands the New Jersey Education Association, the powerful and combative teachers’ union that for years has been a mainstay of Democratic candidates.

Incensed at steps by the Democratic administration of Gov. James J. Florio that the union and other education groups see as endangering teacher pensions and school aid, the N.J.E.A. has thrown its support overwhelmingly to the Republicans, endorsing 46 G.O.P. candidates but only 3 Democrats.

The New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, by contrast, has endorsed 13 Democrats and 8 Republicans. Combined with public displeasure over Democrat-passed tax hikes to fund school-finance reforms, the teachers’ union’s stance is seen as strengthening Republicans’ chances of taking control of the Senate and the Assembly in the Nov. 5 elections.

Union leaders say they are reflecting rank-and-file sentiments among teachers, who resent the perceived threat to their retirement incomes.

“The Democratic Party and the current administration have performed in a way that has angered our members,” said James P. Connerton, the union’s executive director. “It’s unrealistic not to expect a backlash.”

Nevertheless, several education observers said they were perplexed over what the N.a.E.A. hopes to gain from its backing of a Republican Party that opposed last year’s school-aid increase and emphasizes its support for tax reductions.

Democrats are blasting the union for ignoring their efforts to raise education funding and warning that they z may not respond the next time the union comes to them for help.

“The irony of all this is the fact that [the Democrats] provided $800 million more in education support this year, the largest single increase in the history of the state,” complained Daniel J. Dalton, the Senate majority leader.

“The N.J.E.A. has made one dumb mistake,” said Assemblyman William J. Pascrell Jr. “They’re starting to realize the Republicans are going to roll back taxes, and I’m just going to sit back, bite my tongue, and watch this scenario unfold.”

Taxpayers’ Revolt

The current political battle has its origins in the $l.l-billion finance-reform plan and $2.8-billion tax hike passed by the legislature last summer in response to the state supreme court’s decision overturning New Jersey’s education-funding system.

Mr. Florio’s tax and school-finance package set off an intense taxpayer revolt that augured great danger for Democrats this fall.

Education groups, on the other hand, refused to rally around the plan, despite its massive increase in state aid to urban schools. Instead, educators fumed over a provision that placed the responsibility for teacher pensions and benefits on local school districts.

Responding to both revolts, Democratic legislators this March approved a revised formula that shifted about $350 million away from school aid to property-tax relief and put the pensions back into state coffers for two years.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, though, educators this time ignored the pension issue and exploded over the aid shift. Educators also opposed caps placed on school-funding increases that resulted in an additional $229 million being diverted from education spending to tax relief.

Relations between Democratic leaders and many educators deteriorated even further in April, when President of the Senate John A. Lynch and Governor Florio used the occasion of pending school-budget referendums to direct taxpayer anger toward what they called bloated education-administrative budgets and unrealistic teacher-salary demands.

Senator Lynch, addressing the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, accused educators of “hiding behind the kids” in demanding “outrageous pay hikes,” and then accusing him of “education bashing” for “dating to challenge” them.

In retaliation, the N.J.E.A. has mounted an all-out war against Mr. Lynch, launching a “10 for Tiller” campaign in which each of the union’s 136,734 members has been asked to donate $10 for Mr. Lynch’s Republican opponent, Edward Tiller.

Key Pension Issue

But the key factor in the Democrat-union split has been the pension issue, analysts contend. Until last year, the state assumed the full employer share of pension costs.

While the supreme court, in its 1990 decision in Abbott v. Burke, declined to strike down state-funded pensions, it did raise questions about the constitutional equity of the system. Since more-affluent districts pay their employees higher salaries, the court pointed out, the state was required to pay more benefits to those districts--thus widening the gap in resources over low-wealth districts.

The law passed in response to the decision provided that the state continue to pay most of the pension benefits negotiated by the poorer districts. Affluent districts, however, were required to fund their traditionally lucrative packages.

The law transformed the $940’million pension fund into a tool for the redistribution of district wealth, said Peg Goertz, director of the education policy-research division of the Educational Testing Service.

The N.J .E.A. and other education organizations strongly objected to the change, arguing that the provision could jeopardize educators’ pensions and was tantamount to giving with one hand while taking with the other.

Others, however, suggested that the real concern may have been over the pension shift’s potential impact on collective-bargaining negotiations. If benefit costs were not spread statewide, pension provisions would be more carefully scrutinized by the public and local school boards, said Paul Tractenberg, a Rutgers University law professor and the founder of the Education Law Center, which represented the plaintiffs in Abbott v. Burke.

‘Ace in the Hole’?

But if the N.J.E.A. Succeeds in protecting state-funded pensions, some observers say the other effects of a Republican victory on teachers and education in general are unclear.

“I hope [the N.J.E.A. has] an ace in the hole,” said Robert E. Boose, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, which does not endorse candidates. “Because if they don’t, they could win and still lose.”

The state’s continuing fiscal woes make it unlikely that there will be an increase in education funding in the foreseeable future, said Susan Fuhrman, director of the Center for Policy Research at Rutgers University.

Republicans say none is planned, and insist they have made no promises in exchange for the union’s support. Some G.0.P. candidates have campaigned to roll back last year’s l-cent sales-tax increase and to look at the law’s $1.25-billion income-tax hike for increased education aid.

The Senate minority leader, John H. Dorsey, who has been endorsed by the union, said last month that tax cuts would be a Republican priority, even if that meant scaling down school aid.

Senator John H. Ewing, a Republican, said he fully expects the union will be “pounding our backs, saying, ‘Look what we did for you. Now what are you going to do for us?’ “But, he said, that will not sway most Republicans, who believe the Democrats went too far and too fast in remedying school-funding inequalities. “I don’t know what the N.J.E.A.'S logic is,” admitted Jim Harkness, a Republican aide to the Assembly Education Committee. “There are some inconsistencies there.”

Ms. Fuhrman said she saw a different motive. “There is a sense of vengefulness in [the union’s] actions, not a concern for the future,” she contended.

Republican Victory Predicted

Although Democrats sought to deflect taxpayer anger with their property-tax-relief bill this spring, most observers believe that they have done little to sway the electorate’s mood. Few believe the Democrats can hold their six-vote majorities in both the Assembly and the Senate.

Still, bets on a Republican landslide were being at least slightly hedged last week.

Property-tax rebates, coupled with the budget turmoil in neighboring Northeastern states, may have convinced some voters that the Democrats were only doing what they had to when they raised taxes, according to Herb Green, director of the Public Education Institute.

The Democrats have an outside chance of holding onto the Senate, but it is extremely doubtful they can retain control over both houses, Ms. Goertz ventured. Any new Republican majority, she added, may be slimmer than anticipated last summer.

Whatever happens, many observers agree that the politics of education in New Jersey will be profoundly affected by the N.J.E.A.'s stance.

“The Democratic Party is going to have to reassess its relationship with the N.J.E.A., regardless of the outcome” of the election, said Mr. Dalton, the Senate majority leader.

Analysts also believe that, even if they lose this time, the Democrats probably will return someday to their traditional majority status in the legislature. When that happens, education groups that have grown accustomed to warm welcomes at the State Capitol may find a chilly reception.

“At some point, they will have no choice but to come [to us] hat in hand,” said Stephen D’Amico, executive director of the Democratic State Committee. “And when that happens, the agenda will not be written by them. It will be written by ns.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 23, 1991 edition of Education Week as Shift in Education Politics Seen in N.J. Election Battle