New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is facing an uphill battle against the powerful New Jersey Education Association, but if the latest poll from PublicMind is any indicator, that fight may actually pay off in the end. The poll shows that while one third of New Jersey voters have a favorable view of the NJEA, fully 44% have a negative view of the state's teacher's unions, up from 35% in March.
This isn't surprising given the massive anti-reform campaign the public employees unions, including the teacher's unions, have financed against Christie. It's also not surprising given the tough choices the Governor is faced with, and the confrontational (and frankly hilarious) manner he goes about pushing his agenda.
It's easy to get lost talking about education as though it were a zero-sum game, as though what's good for the teachers' unions must also be good for the kids, and as though any and all cuts from education budgets mean cuts from our children's education. That can certainly be the case – cutting education programs quickly can often lead to hardship for students, especially in poorer areas. In some states, such as Arizona, the unions have far less power and teachers make far less money, for instance. The problems facing Arizona schools and the problems facing New Jersey schools are worlds apart.
In New Jersey, cuts from public education do not necessarily mean cuts from the quality of a child's education – just as a decade of profligate spending and increases in education budgets didn't lead to better results there either. Often they mean that local communities will simply need to take a greater role in funding their kids' schools. Similarly, it might mean a loosening of the stranglehold the NJEA has over schools across the state – all of which could lead to increased autonomy for teachers and schools, and more accountability to teachers and students. The teachers' unions are powerful and entrenched, and have resisted any and all reform efforts, including merit pay bonuses for outstanding teachers, preferring to divide the money evenly between all teachers rather than have bonuses go to specific individuals – which misses the point of paying out bonuses in the first place.
“Gov. Christie is insisting on an application that seeks to replace collaboration between teachers with competition for inadequate bonuses; an application that seeks to threaten teachers' jobs rather than give them the confidence to take on new challenges,” NJEA President Barbara Keshishian said.
This is absurd. Plenty of competitive industries are also collaborative ventures. Keshishian assumes that merit pay will lead to some sort of cut throat competition, with teachers ruthlessly working to undermine one another in order to get a bonus. Not only does this severely underestimate the teachers Keshishian is supposed to represent, it misunderstands human nature. Teachers, I suspect, will still work primarily to provide a decent education for their students. Only now, seniority won't be the only marker of success and the only determining factor in a teacher's pay and job security. Seniority should factor into these decisions, just like it does in private sector jobs, but it shouldn't be the be-all end-all in a teacher evaluation.
I'm a supporter of public education in America. Investing in education is one of the best ways we can spend our tax dollars. But when public education starts to be more about the teachers' unions than about the children they're supposed to be educating – then it's time to reevaluate how we've structured our public education system to begin with.