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

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Dear NJEA: You Break It, You Buy It

Cross-posted from Blue Jersey:

Last evening, the New Jersey Senate passed the Urban Hope Act by a margin of 53-3:

The charter school pilot bill designates three failing school districts - in Trenton, Camden and Newark - as renaissance school districts. The bill enables one or more nonprofit entities to apply to the state to supplant the existing non-performing schools with a total of four K-12 schools.
The final vote was 34-3. 
“It’s permissive and not mandatory, secondly, and most importantly, this bill gives local control and input into this bill, and that local control is binding,” said state Sen. Nia Gill (D-34).
State Sen. Ronald L. Rice (D-28) didn’t agree. 
“Amend this legislation to take the City of Newark out,” said Rice. “We can always put Newark in later.”
Unlike Gill, Rice said he does not believe there is sufficient accountability in the bill as it relates to the Brick City.  
“My issue is local control,” said the Newark senator. “The difference is local control should be for everybody. Newark doesn’t have local control. You’re saying you want local control for everybody, but the City of Newark. …Until we get local control, Newark should not be held hostage at the whim of the legislature here.”
Rice called the bill "taxation without representation" for Newarkers.
The good people of Newark were supposed to be inured to this by now; I guess some in Trenton are still surprised that people in cities might actually want to run their own communities, just like people in the 'burbs...

What seems to really amaze those in the know, however, is that one of the supporters of this legislation is none other than the largest teachers union in the state: the NJEA. Bob Braun of the Star-Ledger, a consistent voice of caution against the corporate reform movement, is not happy about their involvement:
In a move that displays either its weakness or cynicism — or both — the state’s largest teachers’ union has joined forces with archenemy Gov. Chris Christie and the powerful Camden County Democratic machine of George Norcross to endorse the "Urban Hope Act," which would allow private companies to build and manage public schools using taxpayer money.
"We have always supported public school choice,’’ said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the NJEA’s chief lobbyist.
Schnitzer’s words sharply contrast with previous comments from union leaders who condemned the same bill the organization now endorses. In June, for example, NJEA President Barbara Keshishian released a statement that read:
"The proposal is nothing more than an attempt to walk away from the state’s obligation to provide a thorough and efficient education to every student by handing over our students and our tax dollars to private companies."
The union’s reversal of position came after the bill was amended to guarantee bargaining and tenure rights for teachers in privately managed schools — as many as 12 so-called "renaissance schools" slated for Newark, Camden and Trenton.
I'll be honest, folks; I'm of two minds about NJEA's endorsement of this:

On the one hand, this bill has a lot wrong with it. Yes, non-profits will be managing the schools, but for-profits can line up and get their taste. As Michael Winerip has been reporting in the New York Times, the line between for-profits and non-profits is quite blurry; Pearson set up its "non-profit" foundation with the clear intent of promoting its for-profit businesses. Why shouldn't we expect the same here?

And the avoidance of public bidding just looks wrong. I don't buy into the notion that public bidding is so onerous that it creates more problems than it solves; neither does the Education Law Center.

That said, it does appear NJEA got some worthwhile concessions into the bill. The staff will have the right to collective bargaining, which is no small thing. My understanding is that the original bill allowed for teachers without certificates; that would have been a disaster. So I think it's unfair of Braun to characterize the NJEA as "flip-floppers" when they seem to have moved the bill in a better direction.

The fact that the bill passed with only three "nays" suggests that fighting against it would have been like howling at the moon. I understand we all have to live with certain compromises to get by in this world; I understand that the NJEA had to get what they could get from this thing on behalf of their members (including yours truly). If they were able to some spray some perfume on this bill, so much the better.

But let's not kid ourselves. This bill is South Jersey Dem boss George Norcross's baby. John Mooney interviewed him yesterday:
Norcross said his family's foundation and Cooper Health System, of which he is chairman, will likely team up to lead the first school proposal. He stressed that Cooper would not be financing the school but would contribute its brand and specific services, such as health clinics and mentoring.
"We'll be strategic partners," Norcross said. "We are not in the business of operating schools. That is not our expertise."
The school would likely be run by a nonprofit charter management organization hired for the project, he said. Norcross said he is already working separately with charter schools in the city to help them grow as well. Although for-profits are afforded a limited role in the law, Norcross downplayed any place for them in his plans, other than as service providers or construction contractors.
Norcross said he envisioned other nonprofit entities in the city and in the other two proposed pilot districts -- Newark and Trenton -- would step up to do the same.
"A lot of people will be competing for these opportunities," he said. "It could be a Prudential, PSE&G. I think the proposals will be stronger if it has that publicly known brand."
Yeah, you'll forgive me if I'm not really enthusiastic about corporations coming in and teaching our kids; they need to get their own damn houses in order before they start imposing their crap on our children.

NJEA trashed Norcross pretty well this summer; now they're making nice. Again, I get it. Illinois taught us a lesson that unions need to take to heart: if you don't negotiate, politicians will run and get their contributions elsewhere. Norcross isn't going away soon; he is a force to be reckoned with. Yes, I get it; I get it...

But I don't have to like it. We shouldn't be turning over our schools to private interests without strict controls. We know charters - and that's what these "renaissance" schools seem to be - skim the cream and do no better at educating kids than public schools. And Senator Rice has a very good point about local control.

So, as a proud union member and a proud teacher, let me give my union a word of advice:

You'd better not f*%$ this up.

See, whether you like it or not, you now own this thing. Yes, I know it wasn't your idea, but that doesn't matter now; it's yours. You are Chris Christie's bane; anything you support, he opposes. If this turns into a disaster, he will put all of the blame on you. You must understand this; the NJEA is now on the hook for the success or failure of these schools.

Which means you'd better make them work. And that requires:

  • Transparency. You can't pull the Chris Cerf garbage of promising data on these schools and then refusing to release it a year later.
  • Innovation. You'd better come up with something new and exciting in these schools. Drill and kill is the last thing we need more of; try something that educates the whole child.
  • Empowering Staff. Cut your teachers lose from the bureaucratic nonsense. Give them a chance to succeed free from edicts imposed by politicians and consultants who don't know nothin' 'bout nothin' when it comes to schools.
I'll think of other things later, but you get my point: own these schools. Put great teachers in these new schools, and let them work as the professionals they are. Show the state that a unionized, professional workforce - and ONLY a unionized, professionalized workforce - is capable of gaining superior results, even with the toughest kids to teach.

You owe this to the teachers of the state; more importantly, you owe it to the kids who enroll in these schools. And if you fail...

Well, just don't, OK?


Anonymous said...

Quite honestly, if there are garbage administrators put in, the teachers will only be effective to a point. It's hard to combat the stench from the main office that is rife with cronies. So the question is, whose cronies will fill these schools to run them?

On the other hand, the NJEA's deal with the devil could mean nothing more than that they've been chosen to be the patsy. So, here we go.

Anonymous said...

Hey Duke,

Wow, Ron Rice is impressive in his eloquence in not allowing families in his district the right to use their tax dollars to choose the best school for their children, rather than be forced into the local crime-ridden government schools.

Here is a question (I know the answer but let's see if you do and will print it):

Where did Ron Rice, raking in those same taxpayer dollars, send his own son to school?"

Let's test your integrity on that answer.

Duke said...

I guess Rice sent his kid to private school, although I don't know for sure.

What's your point? How is it germane to my post here?