If and when Governor Chris Christie announces his 2016 presidential bid, one thing is certain: a primary focus will be on education. And when Christie talks about education, he means undermining teachers unions, ending tenure for teachers, closing and consolidating schools, replacing traditional public schools with for-profit charter schools, privatization and more. That’s what he’s done in Newark, and that’s what he bragging about when he travels around the country—including, as reported below, in two recent speeches, one to an elite gathering of wealthy Wall Street types and one to the Aspen Institute.
In New Jersey, the battleground between Christie, on one hand, and teachers and parents, on the other, has centered on Newark, the state’s largest city, where schools have operated under state control since 1995. As described in a detailed piece in The Nation by Owen Davis, in countless pieces in Bob Braun’s Ledger, and as a central focus of the Jersey Jazzman blog, since taking office in 2009 Christie has extended and expanded state control of Newark’s school, ordering a dramatic reorganization of the school system under the direction of Cami Anderson, the Christie-appointed superintendent of schools in Newark. Her plan, One Newark, called for firing hundreds of tenured teachers, closing numerous public schools and replacing them with charter schools. Opposition erupted immediately, sparking walk-outs, demonstrations, marches and angry school board meetings, and it led to Anderson’s firing five principals who spoke out against her policies. The anger was pivotal in the election of Ras Baraka in May as Newark’s new reform mayor. Baraka, a public high school principal and strong opponent of Christie’s education plans, ran against Shavar Jeffries, a strong charter school proponent, as Christie Watch detailed on May 14:
While Baraka was backed strongly by New Jersey’s Working Families Alliance, the teachers union, the Communications Workers of America and the rest of organized labor, lots of money from Wall Street, hedge funds and the wealthy charter school movement poured into Newark on behalf of Shavar Jeffries, Baraka’s opponent in the race.
Despite the opposition at home, Christie is promoting his education ideas to potential Republican backers and financiers of his 2016 campaign. On July 16, surrounded by the big guns of the hedge fund industry, Christie was in his element when he keynoted the CNBC/Institutional Investor “Delivering Alpha” conference. In interview format with CNBC’s John Harwood, Christie made clear that a key focus of a possible presidential campaign would be a reformed education system that “promotes competition”:
We have an educational system in this country now that puts the comfort of the adults (the teachers) before the children. The fact is, there are ineffective teachers all across the country, protected by the tenure system, [which is] the essence of anti-competitiveness.… You should have merit pay across the country and they should get paid more if they are good. And we shouldn’t have a system that allows bad teachers to be guaranteed a job for life.
Christie played to the audience of mostly alpha-type billionaire hedge fund managers who see education as a $600 billion or more emerging market, including John Paulson, Lee Ainslie and Stan Drackenmiller, who attended this one-day event at New York’s luxury hotel, the Pierre. Christie, whose gubernatorial campaigns were heavily funded by this very same hedge fund crowd and who now relies on the big bucks of David Tepper, a New Jersey hedge fund mogul and educational activist, for his current privitization projects, told the audience that “it’s wrong to say government needs to spend more money on education.” He then described how New Jersey spends what he considers to be an outrageous amount of $17,700 per pupil on average on K to 12 education.
Then, on July 24, in Aspen, Colorado, speaking along side a handful of other Republican governors on a panel organized by the Aspen Institute, Christie spoke more bluntly about the needs to not only make major corporate reforms to education but to drastically weaken if not destroy the teachers’ unions as a prerequisite for instituting other education reforms. Claiming that Newark has made “some really significant progress” under Christie’s changes, and falsely denouncing Baraka as former principal of the “worst-performing high school in Newark,” Christie bragged arrogantly that he himself is “the decider” when it comes to Newark’s schools: “To say that [Baraka] is opposed to these reforms would be an understatement.… If you looked at his campaign in Newark, it was as if he was running against me, not against Shavar Jeffries, who was his opponent, and in the end, though, the good news is this. He came in to talk to me about his agenda and said he wanted to speak to me about the education system in Newark. And I said to him, Listen, I’ll listen to whatever you have to say, but the state runs the school system, I am the decider, and you have nothing to do with it.”
And Christie went on to gloat to the Aspen group that he reappointed Cami Anderson literally one day before Baraka took office: “And the second person he was running against beside me, other than Shavar Jeffries, was Cami Anderson, who was the state-appointed superintendent of schools there. Her contract was expiring on June 30 of this year. He was being sworn in on July 1. So on June 30 I extended her contract three years.”
Back in New Jersey, opposition to Christie’s Newark plan is growing. A rank-and-file caucus strongly opposed to Christie’s efforts, the Newark Education Workers (NEW), won a majority of the executive board of the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) last year. “The NEW Caucus has developed student leaders, reached out to parents and the broader community,” Brandon Rippey, chair of the Caucus told Christie Watch. Rippey is a veteran social studies teacher at a Newark public high school considered by New Jersey Monthly to be among the best in the state. Rippey believes the “refusal of the NTU and other teacher unions to strike is holding them back.” One of the parent groups involved is the Newark Parents Union, led by Frank Adao, who is organizing meetings and protests. It includes several dozen parents and has 2,300 Facebook followers. Adao is hopeful Baraka will be able to wrest control of the schools back from the state, he told Christie Watch. “I am hoping that we get back local control of our schools, [not] to destroy public education rather than rebuild.” Adao said the group was going to invite Christie to a town hall meeting in Newark. But “if that doesn’t work, we will take it to the next level and go to him in Trenton to rally.” Since taking office in 2009, Christie has held 125 town hall gatherings, including one this week at the seaside resort of Belmar, but none in Newark.
At the Belmar event, one Newark student leader, Kristin Towkaniuk, rose to ask Christie to come to Newark. Towkaniuk, a 17-year-old who heads the Newark Students Union, led a walkout of 1,000 students this past spring opposing One Newark, despite, she told Christie Watch, threats of disciplinary action from school officials, and one principal who chained his school’s doors closed. At the meeting she asked Christie when he would come to Newark to hear what his constituents there have to say about One Newark. Christie’s arrogance, even to a student, shocked many: “The answer is, I’ll do my town halls where me and my staff think are the best places for me to do the town halls. If one of them turns up in Newark, I hope you show up and you get to ask a question that’s better than the one you just asked.”
Bob Braun, who wrote for The Star-Ledger for fifty years, and now has his own popular blog, issued a call to arms to Newark politicians and leaders:
It is time for Newark to decide what it wants. Either it will aggressively demand fulfillment of the promise of equal educational opportunity for all children, or it will stand back and watch the city become a hierarchical system of charters for the most promising and warehouses for the children who need public education the most. It is up to you, Ras Baraka. You can lead the fight or you can compromise.
Unfortunately for the city, and New Jersey, few Republican primary voters who will go to the polls in 2016 live in Newark.