Let's lay out a few facts:
- New Jersey has one of the highest-performing statewide school systems in the country. I would argue that we could make a good case for being the best performing state in the nation, given our demographics.
- Contrary to the warbling of know-nothings, New Jersey's urban school's are not failures. New Jersey made an investment years ago in school funding equity; that investment has most certainly paid off. The real problem is that this state has massive economic inequity; no school system can ever fix that.
Unfortunately, the Christie administration wants to undo the progress New Jersey's urban schools have made by short-changing them on funding. Part of their strategy is to convince the citizens of the state that the "achievement gap" is due to variations in teachers and schools. That's transparently stupid, but it goes a long way toward explaining why Christie is so hellbent to implement things like merit pay, which plays to his ideological predilections.
- New Jersey also has arguably the strongest unionized teacher work force in the nation. But the teachers in Newark are represented by an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT); most NJ teachers are represented by NJEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA).
In other words: the teachers in the largest district in the state are not represented by the largest teachers union in the state.
It's worth pointing out that when Chris Christie put together his Educator Effectiveness Task Force, he insulted teachers by including only one working teacher in the group. That teacher was not a member of NJEA; she is the president of one of New Jersey's few AFT locals.
Let me be clear: I have great respect for the woman who did serve, Donna Chiera, who has been the only adult in the room during the Perth Amboy fiasco. But it was very telling that no member of NJEA was brought in to work on overhauling the teacher evaluation system.
When Christie went on TV a while ago, bad-mouthing teachers and their unions, no representative of NJEA was invited to give a response. The only teachers union representative present was Randi Weingarten of AFT. Again, I have nothing but respect for Randi, who I think does a fine job representing teacher concerns in the media.
But let's be honest: Chris Christie has a different relationship with AFT than he does with NJEA. To all my friends and readers in AFT, understand this is not a criticism of you; it's simply a truth.
(Folks, I am on your team. That's why I'm going to be honest with you. Regular readers know the spirit in which I present these thoughts.)
- Newark has been under state control for 17 years. Governor Christie and NJDOE Commissioner Chris Cerf personally oversaw the appointment of Newark superintendent Cami Anderson. A year after her appointment, Cerf gave the district lower scores in its evaluation than it had before Anderson's arrival. This ensured that Newark will remain under state control for the foreseeable future.
- Under Cerf, the NJDOE has moved to assert its authority over New Jersey's schools though a series of policy changes that have not been approved by the Legislature. These include the establishment of Regional Achievement Centers (RACs), state-level approval of charter schools, and expansion of state-level standardized testing.
Cerf's NJDOE wants unprecedented powers over local schools. There's no denying this.
- Merit pay has been tried many times, but it has never worked. There is no compelling evidence that any merit pay system implemented in Newark will do anything to help raise student achievement. As I've said here many times: believing in merit pay is like believing in fairies.
- As Diane Ravitch points out, this entire deal is being driven by a big chunk of money, largely from private sources. That's great... until someone turns off the tap. Is there any reason to believe this isn't a one-shot deal?
Let's put this all together:
- New Jersey has great public schools. And yes, contrary to the snake oil peddlers, that includes the urban schools.
- New Jersey leads the nation in funding equity for schools (thank you, ELC!).
- The Christie administration wants to undo that equity. They have turned the focus on to teacher quality because they don't want to acknowledge that their school funding policy is a disaster for New Jersey's children.
- Newark's teachers union has a better relationship with the Christie administration than the union that represents most teachers in the state.
- The Newark union has agreed to a merit pay system, even though there is no evidence this will help student achievement.
- Newark is a state-controlled district, and will remain so for the future.
- The Christie administration and the Cerf NJDOE have been asserting unprecedented authority over local districts.
- Merit pay doesn't work, yet Christie has said many times he wants it.
- This deal is driven by private money, which can dry up at any moment.
Given all this...
Why shouldn't any teacher in New Jersey think that the Christie administration sees this Newark contract as this as the beginning of merit pay for every teacher in the state? Using a one-time infusion of funds, couldn't this be simply a gateway to radically changing the way teachers are paid in the best school system in the nation?
If the Merit Pay Fairy takes up residence in Newark, isn't it just a matter of time before she tries to set up shop everywhere - even if the private money isn't there? Don't all teachers in Jersey have a stake in this - even if we won't get any Facebook money out of the deal?
First Newark (thanks, Zuck!). Then the Oranges. Then the Plainfields. Then South Jersey. Then...