NJ Governor, Teachers Unions Face Off Over Deficits

Published April 13, 2010

School reformers are paying attention to New Jersey as Gov. Chris Christie (R) prepares to fight the state’s powerful teachers union over state education funding, public employee pensions, and structural education reforms in cities such as Newark.

Christie, who campaigned in 2009 on expanding school choice and proposes slashing the Garden State’s budget by $1.4 billion, has called for school employees to accept a wage freeze. Christie in March submitted a budget to the legislature for the 2010-11 fiscal year that would reduce state school aid by $819 million.

New Jersey has more than $51 billion in public debt and faces a $10.7 billion budget deficit in the coming next year without significant cuts. Christie had said he would not raise taxes, but a property tax hike is under consideration.

“The leaders of the union have used their political muscle to set up two classes of citizens in New Jersey: Those who enjoy rich public benefits and those who pay for them,” Christie told lawmakers on March 16.

Christie took issue with union-negotiated teaching contracts that include expensive health insurance and 4 to 5 percent annual wage increases. He notes many private-sector firms are cutting wages, freezing spending, or simply not hiring as they struggle through the economic downturn.

Pension Reforms on Tap

The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union with nearly 200,000 members, asserts Christie is guilty of “bullying and misrepresentation.” The union has criticized the governor’s plan for cutting taxes on those earning more than $400,000 per year and claims the state’s public employee pension plans have not been adequately funded for 11 of the past 15 years.

NJEA offices did not return several calls and messages for this story.

New Jersey’s Democrat-controlled legislature bucked NJEA pressure and on March 22 approved three bills attempting to check the state’s fast-growing pension liabilities.

New Jersey education organizations hailed the reforms.

“That’s an indicator of the kinds of reforms that will play out in the months ahead,” said Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. “Because of the deep [state] deficits, the majority of [Christie’s] proposals will remain intact.”

But Bozza said local school districts would need to scramble to make up any differences in state contributions to teacher pension plans.

Encouraging Community Involvement

Bozza said the governor’s most helpful proposal would let school districts renegotiate union contracts and cut pay and benefit increases that grow faster than the rate of inflation.

Bozza suggested that school districts facing shortfalls might also consider district consolidation and lengthening the probationary period for tenure to avoid costly legal disputes later.

In Newark, the state’s largest city, teachers and administrators have begun to do just that. When Newark School Superintendent Clifford Janey took the helm in 2008, a group of public school teachers and administrators had already begun meeting monthly to discuss reform ideas on their own. The superintendent, hoping to encourage and broaden such partnerships, formed a parallel group with more administrators that meets less regularly.

“Newark’s community recognized that if it was going to assist and possibly ensure students taking advantages of the 21st century, it was going to have to change its practices,” said Daniel Gohl, executive officer for innovation and change in the Newark schools.

“That desire is not the same as knowing how to get there. All participants are looking for the ways to do this,” he said.

Newark as Reform Lab

Janey and Gohl have held their posts for just a year but have already made some progress. Janey has allowed several charter schools to share public school facilities, and his coalition has sponsored teacher development workshops.

During the 2009-2010 academic year, Newark public schools have worked with the teachers and administrators unions to establish common metrics for evaluating teachers. The superintendent’s office says it plans to expand the project in the fall.

Newark under Janey and Gohl’s watch has become an unofficial laboratory for state reform. The district is well suited for experimentation, reformers say. District statistics show only 52 percent of the city’s public school students graduate, and only 38 percent of high school students test proficient in math.

Joy Pavelski ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.