Governor drops poll-killing tough talk while political action committee funds ad campaign against teacher tenure
BY TOM HESTER SR.
At a hush-hush political gathering in Vail, Colo. on June 26, Gov. Chris Christie told an audience of Republican conservatives of the New Jersey Education Association that he abhors, “That’s where we head next,” he said. “We need to take on the teachers’ union once and for all, and we need to decide who is determining our children’s future, who is running this place. Them or us. I say it’s us.”
Over two months later, Christie has lowered his voice and his verbal attacks on the union appear to have stopped — the tough-talking Jersey Guy routine was hurting him in the polls, especially with women. Instead, the governor this week is visiting with teachers and students in their schools to explain his public education platform, which includes changing the way teachers are evaluated. At a meeting at Roy W. Brown Middle School in Bergenfield on Wednesday, Christie never raised his voice and addressed female teachers as ma’m.
Michael Drewniak, the governor’s press secretary, was asked what’s become of the tough talk.
“We’re not focused on doing battle with adults, except to the extent they stand in the way,” Drewniak said. “The governor and the proposed reforms are focused on children and quality educational outcomes for them, no matter where they live, and ensuring they are prepared for college and careers.”
Steve Wollmer, NJEA communications director, said the tough talk has faded because Christie helped create the Better Education for Kids political action committee that in late June launched a $1 million TV ad and direct mail campaign to promote governor’s proposal for teacher evaluation based on student test scores and tenure, “put students first,“ and take on what it considers the biggest opponent to change — the 195,501-member and politically-powerful teachers’ union.
The group’s founders are David Tepper, head of Appaloosa Management, a multi-billion hedge fund, and Alan Fournier, head of another hedge fund, Pennant Capital Management.
Everyone has noticed the intensity has dropped,” Wollmer said. “For one, polling data is driving the governor to behave better. He is seen as failing on education and that’s not good. There is a huge gender gap with women — mothers with kids in public schools — and 70 percent of teachers are women. And two, what Better Education for Kids is doing is essentially providing cover for the governor through direct mail attacking tenure. The governor can sit back and watch the movie and let them do the work.”
Wollmer said the NJEA is taking Better Education for Kids and Christie’s relationship with David and Charles Koch, the multi-billionaire conservatives who hosted the Vail event seriously.
“He wanted to put us in our place,” Wollmer said of Christie‘s remarks at Vail. The union official then added, “The Koch brothers are as far right as you can get. They have made no secret of wanting to eliminate unions. They went into Wisconsin and worked with the governor there and took away union rights.
“If Chris Christie is a friend of the Kochs, we take it very seriously,” Wollmer said. “The governor has said he tried to meet with the NJEA. He refused too. He is not interested in meeting with us. He is interested in destroying the rights of organized labor. He wants to destroy labor and the laws that define labor.”
In Bergenfield, one of 10 school districts selected by the state Department of Education to share $1.1 million to fund a pilot teacher evaluation system, Christie said, “The biggest problem in education is our comfort level. We need to push our adults (teachers) to do better before we can expect them to push our children.”
In the 10 districts and Newark, teachers are being judged half on student academic performance and half on classroom observations. The governor hopes to see the evaluation system go statewide with the beginning of the 2012-13 school year. The new evaluation system would affect tenure, salary or job security.
The NJEA opposes evaluating teachers on students’ classroom performance such as test scores because, Wollmer said, any number of factors, including a troubled home life, disinterested parents and health and nutrition, can affect a child’s learning ability.
“If they are willing to be partners in real reform, they will have a seat at the table,” Christie said of NJEA in Bergenfield. “They have a seat at the table on this.”
The way Wollmer sees it, the governor’s comment was a way of painting the NJEA as uncooperative.
“We are involved,” he said. “We‘ve advised our locals and staff to be players and get involved and see how this is going to play out and going to affect on members. We are at the table. Our concern is the governor‘s insistence on the ability to improve student test scores as a way to evaluate teachers. There are too many factors outside a teacher’s control that affect scores.
Wollmer said the union’s professional development and research staff has been working with DOE Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf and his staff on improving course content standards for students. “The people at DOE were very open about welcoming our input,” he said.
“We have sent a clear signal to the commissioner’s office that we are willing to work together,” Wollmer said. “But if the goal (of the governor) is to smash the union and take away people’s rights against unfair dismissal, if that is what he is going to come out, that’s a clear indication the gloves are off again.“