Teaching Profession

Teachers’ Union, Governor Square Off in N.J.

By Catherine Gewertz — April 21, 2010 5 min read
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Even as he moved into the New Jersey governor’s office in January, Chris Christie prosecuted a war of words against the powerful statewide teachers’ union, saying it was mired in “19th century” views on policy and spending. Now that war has rolled into voters’ homes as the two sides fight for their support on painful budget decisions.

The battle has already extracted its first casualty: hundreds of local school budgets. For the first time since 1976, Garden State voters rejected most of the school budgets offered for their approval. Now those budgets have to be revised by municipal leaders.

Two days before the April 20 vote, the Republican governor urged voters to spurn budgets if they didn’t include a one-year freeze on teacher pay he had requested. Only two dozen of the state’s 600 districts had reopened their teacher contracts and secured wage freezes or cuts.

Gov. Christie argued that teachers should “share in the sacrifice” when a massive budget gap looms. New Jersey Education Association President Barbara Keshishian called it unfair for the governor to balance the budget with teacher pay instead of renewing a tax on wealthy residents that could have plugged a chunk of the gap.

“We were not asking for a lot, and yet we were met with an eye-popping revolt and campaign led by the NJEA to keep that from happening,” Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the governor, said. “Intransigence and obstructionism have hurt the union and were reflected in the vote tallies.”

NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer suggested that instead of demonizing the teachers’ union, the governor should look for other sources of revenue, such as rooting out county-level corruption or reinstituting the so-called “millionaire’s tax” on those earning more than $400,000 a year that expired at the end of 2009.

“We know we have to balance the state’s books,” Mr. Wollmer said. “But this problem took a while to create, and it’s going to take a while to fix.”

Anger Abounds

Bad blood runs through the debate about statewide education funding, too. To close a $2.2 billion gap in the current fiscal year budget, the governor cut $475 million in education aid in February. His proposed $29.3 billion plan for fiscal 2011 would spend $820 million less than last year on precollegiate education, and skip the state’s $3 billion pension contribution. In a March 16 budget speech, Mr. Christie attacked public-employee unions, saying their policies have divided residents into “those who enjoy rich benefits and those who pay for them.”

Mr. Christie has already signed into law measures that scale back pension benefits for new public employees, including teachers, and require current employees to give up 1.5 percent of their pay for health benefits if their districts don’t already require it.

The governor’s administration notes that the proposed fiscal 2011 budget actually would provide $238 million, or 2.4 percent, more in state aid for education than did last year’s budget. Most of the $820 million net drop in total spending, officials said, was due to the loss of $1 billion in one-time federal stimulus money. Legal advocates for poor urban districts claim the drop violates a 2009 state supreme court ruling requiring full funding of the state’s school finance formula.

Likened to Ahab

In a year with unprecedented budget troubles, the pain extends far beyond education, including cuts to municipal and higher-education funding. But hostilities have spiked the highest between the state’s teachers and the governor.

“Governor Christie is the irresistible force, and the union is the immovable object,” said Richard G. Bozza, the executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. “This is a level of rhetoric we haven’t seen before.”

Mr. Wollmer likened the governor to the captain in Moby Dick who relentlessly pursued his nemesis, saying, “We are his great white whale, and he is our Ahab.”

Mr. Christie has compared the union to tearful 9-year-olds who don’t get their way, and accused it of protecting its “parochial interests” at the expense of children. He has angered the union by advocating merit pay, charter school expansion, and publicly funded scholarships for private school.

The midyear cutbacks sparked a media campaign by the NJEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association, including full-page newspaper ads asking “who will speak for students?” The union urged members to flood lawmakers with calls and e-mails. Said NJEA Executive Director Vincent Giordano: “When we get put in a corner, put in a box, we can take off the gloves.”

Earlier this month, the president of an NJEA affiliate in Bergen County circulated an e-mail jokingly praying for Gov. Christie’s death. He and Ms. Keshishian apologized, but Mr. Christie called the stunt “beyond the pale.” A Facebook page for teachers opposed to the wage freeze garnered 69,900 fans and overflowed with insults, some obscene, aimed at the governor.

School Boards’ Role

Hostilities date back to the fall campaign, when the NJEA, wary of Mr. Christie’s tough talk on spending and his support of policies they opposed, endorsed his opponent, Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine. Mr. Christie refused to meet with the union throughout his campaign.

The New Jersey School Boards Association supports the governor’s moves to rein in spending on teacher wages and benefits. The group’s spokesman, Frank Belluscio, noted that requiring teachers to contribute 1.5 percent of their wages to health insurance brings them in line with other public employees, who are already required to do so.

Ben Dworkin, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., said that the governor seems to have decided that he has public sentiment on his side in attacking the teachers’ union. Some polls show voters like their local teachers more than they do the teachers’ unions, Mr. Dworkin said.

But he said that faulting unions for teachers’ compensation packages overlooks the role of the other party that negotiates them: local school boards. While teachers’ unions may be a tempting target politically, Mr. Dworkin said, they could extract a price from Mr. Christie by organizing against his allies in local and state races.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2010 edition of Education Week as Governor, Teachers’ Union Clash on N.J. Budget Issues

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