I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Destruction of the NJ Teaching Corps

Make no mistake - yesterday was the first phase. What we are witnessing is the beginning of a systematic destruction of NJ's teaching corps.

When A Nation At Risk was released in 1983, it created not only a movement toward standards; it called for the professionalization of the teaching corps. Specifically:
"2. Salaries for the teaching profession should be increased and should be professionally competitive, market-sensitive, and performance-based."
Yet here we are, more than a quarter of a century later, calling for wage freezes, pension cuts, and benefit hikes. On a profession that earns 2/3 of what comparable professionals make.

Tom Kean got elected in the wake of A Nation At Risk. Part of his solution to education woes was to raise starting salaries for teachers, even if it meant raising the income tax on the wealthy and the sales tax by a penny. This was coming after a huge recession - sound familiar?

Chris Christie, who inexplicably enjoyed Kean's support in the election, has eschewed Kean's legacy. He is going to slash salaries, slash benefits, and upend the pension. What will this do?

Most people enter teaching with a fairly clear understanding of the trade-offs involved. Yes, they'll make less money almost immediately. Yes, they'll make less money over their lifetimes. And, yes, if they happen to be the best at what they do, they will gain little if any financial reward for it, unlike almost any other profession.

They are willing to accept that because it's a job they grow to love, and because there are other compensations that make the sacrifice of a higher salary worthwhile. They can be the primary caregivers for their kids and still work.  They'll have good health care. They'll have a modest but reliable pension if they stay in the system. They'll have stability.

What Chris Christie has managed to do is take away almost every one of these compensations for having a low salary. Astonishingly, he's done it in a matter of months. The stability is gone. The health care is eroding. The pension is under segue. And without these offsets to a diminished salary, the primary care giver in a family is increasingly less likely to view the value of being off in the summers with his or her kids as ample reason to stay in the teaching profession.

I would not underestimate the importance of this shift. Combined with his increasingly personal attacks on teachers themselves (drug mules?!?), Christie has normalized the notion of teachers as non-professionals. The impact of this will be felt swiftly:

- Young people will not opt into the profession. Why would they? No compensation, low wages, onerous entrance requirements, and no respect: does that sound like a career path for people smart enough to pursue other options?

- The veterans will pull out as soon as they can. I don't know if this latest pension/health care stick will drive them out any faster, but they're not likely to hang around any longer than they have to.

- The mid-careers will be demoralized. You put in your time, got good evaluations, worked toward tenure, slowly inched up the pay scale, did your extra graduate hours - for what? To be told by every chowder-head who calls in on NJ 101.5 that you are the root of the problem? For a five-figure salary? If you can, you'll get out. If not, you'll still do your job, but with little joy and plenty of fear.

So the profession will lose - probably fairly quickly - its best members. The kids will suffer. We'll see a decline against the rest of the world. We'll publish a 30th anniversary "update" of A Nation at Risk. And then what?

And then what?

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