BY TOM HESTER SR.
Under public pressure from Gov. Chris Christie to renegotiate contracts with local school boards and being accused by him as part of the problem of high education costs and not part of the solution, the 200,000-member state teachers' union criticized him in return Friday.
New Jersey Education Association President Barbara Keshishian said Christie has chosen the welfare of residents who earn over $400,000 annually over full school funding for the benefit of children.
"The choice could not be more stark: tax cuts for millionaires, or full school funding for New Jersey kids,'' Keshishian said. "Just a few weeks into his term Governor Christie has staked out his position, slashing nearly $1.5 billion from state aid to schools and higher education.
"At the same time, he has rejected out of hand any consideration of reinstating a very modest tax on the very wealthiest New Jersey residents, those making more than $400,000 per year,'' she said. "Last year, that surcharge generated nearly $1 billion in revenue for the state, enough to close much of the hole that his reckless budget opened in local school budgets.''
In an effort to present a balanced $29.3 billion 2010-11 state budget, Christie has proposed cutting $819 million in school aid, $446 million in local government aid, and $170 million in aid to colleges. The budget proposal is expected to spark an average property tax hike of $250.
"Those two decisions - to slash funding for schools and to deliver generous tax cuts for the super wealthy - are so far out of the mainstream in New Jersey that the governor is attempting to distract New Jerseyans from the real issue,'' Keshishian said. "For the last several days, his distraction of choice has been to attack teachers and school employees, claiming that we - not his misguided priorities — are the reason that schools face deep and painful cuts that are going to hurt kids.
"I understand politics, and I understand Governor Christie's tactics,'' Keshishian said. "If I were cutting funds from schools to provide tax cuts to the wealthy, I'd be looking for a distraction too. I wouldn't want people focusing on the consequences for students and I wouldn't want people asking why millionaires get a pass when everyone else is being asked to share in the sacrifice. I wouldn't want to answer for why teachers and staff will be laid off, why class sizes will go up, why academic programs will be cut, or why valuable extracurricular activities will be cut. I wouldn't want to have to justify slamming doors in the faces of college students who just want to get the training and education they need to prepare for today's jobs and help grow our economy back to health.''
Keshishian described Christie as a shrewd politician who is using political tactics to impose his agenda on the state.
"But when he turned his attack machine on teachers and school employees, he really stooped to a desperate new low, because our members are not the problem,'' Keshishian said. "So when the governor takes shot after shot at school employees, sneering that they don't work very hard or proclaiming that they just don't care about students, it's an unfair and unwarranted attack on people who have dedicated their lives to educating the children of our state.''
In response to the criticism, Michael Drewniak, Christie's press secretary, pointed out that teachers, NJEA union members, in the Boonton school district on Thursday agreed to a wage freeze and other concessions to save 25 jobs.
"That is incredibly laudable and responsible,'' Drewniak said. "In places like Boonton and other districts we see teachers and school boards coming to the table, sharing in sacrifice, and protecting education resources — including teachers' jobs.
"These are individuals truly acting in the interests of the children,'' he added. " In contrast, we have the NJEA leadership thwarting consideration of compromise at any cost and leaving school boards no alternatives as they attempt to prevent the loss of teachers, staff and even education programs. It's mind-boggling that they care so little about their colleagues' jobs. These are unprecedented times of financial distress. If we can't get reasonable accommodation now from the NJEA, that just says all the public needs to know about the group's leadership tactics and transparent motivations. It is laughable when they claim it's about the kids. It's about money and self-interest at any cost — as long as the cost isn't to them.''
State Education Commissioner Bret Schundler Friday blamed the NJEA for playing a role in the state losing the chance to receive $400 million in federal education aid through President Obama's "Race to the Top'' initiative.
"I was disappointed the grant application put in by the Corzine administration failed, but I was not surprised,'' Schundler said in a op-ed column. "For a state's grant application to be approved, the Obama administration requires that local school and teacher union leaders commit to support the initiative's objectives. The application for funds put in by New Jersey had phenomenal support from local school board presidents and superintendents, but very little from union leaders. This doomed New Jersey's application and cost our public schools hundreds of millions of dollars. The reason the New Jersey Education Association encouraged local union leaders not to support Obama's program is that it requires grant-receiving school districts to take student learning into account when evaluating the performance of teachers. The union fears that school districts will judge teachers unfairly.''
Schundler said his department will be submitting a second grant application for federal Race To The Top dollars. "I would like to implore the NJEA to support the state's resubmission," he said. "The union's support will open the door to hundreds of millions of federal dollars flowing to our schools. Our New Jersey schools need this money. Moreover, the Obama administration has signaled that, going forward, an increasingly large share of federal education dollars will be tied to the very same requirements. If the NJEA holds fast to its current position, not just hundreds of millions of dollars, but ultimately billions of federal education dollars, could end up going elsewhere.''