“The Incredibly Shrinking Education Commissioner”

We all assume that governors and their appointed education commissioners (or state superintendents or secretaries of education) will generally get along.  When the top ed job is appointed (as opposed to many states that actually elect the educator-in-chief), the gov and the ed commish tend to hail from the same party.  We assume they share the same general philosophy.  And we most certainly expect that the commish serves at the pleasure of the governor, and is on the same page agenda wise (at least publicly).

But then we have those great political states like New Jersey, the state dear ol’ Eduflack is mostly likely to call home.  After reading the political soap opera that is education policy and politics in the Garden State, a state known for bare-knuckle politics, we are now seeing the best and worst of it on the education front. 

For those who haven’t been turning into the telenovela, here’s what you missed.  Gov. Chris Christie was elected last November despite the incredible vitriol and massive campaign attacks waged by the New Jersey Education Association.  NJEA expected Christie would then play ball with them, as they are a powerful labor union in a state that generally appreciates powerful labor unions, but he refused (and who can blame him, after the attacks he suffered during the campaign).  On Christie’s first day of office, New Jersey submitted a Phase One Race to the Top app, based largely on the wishes of NJEA.  The application didn’t make the cut, and NJ was not a Phase One finalist.  Christie appoints Bret Schundler, champion of charter schools, as the state education commissioner.  Schundler reworks the state’s RttT app, based on reviewer feedbak, and cuts a deal with NJEA to make the state’s recommended teacher quality provisions (particularly on seniority and incentive pay) palatable to the union so they sign on.  Folks are shocked the Christie Administration and NJEA reach detente.  Then, before the app is submitted, Christie swoops in, says he agreed to no such deal with NJEA, and changes the RttT application to reflect his preferences and reject NJEA’s needs with regard to teacher quality measures.  The RttT app was then submitted to the feds last week in Christie’s image, the NJEA (and Schundler) be damned.  With me so far?

Immediately following Christie’s charge up RttT Hill, some presumed that Schundler’s days would be numbered.  After all, how could a Christie lieutenant strike a deal with Public Enemy Number One?  The Newark Star-Ledger editorial board now says that Schundler’s “credibility is in jeopardy.”   The folks over at NJ Left Behind wonder  if Christie and Schundler are playing “good cop-bad cop” with the teachers’ union in the name of progress? 

Back in January, Eduflack was so bold as to suggest that New Jersey should have pulled its Phase One application.  Christie should have demonstrated his strength on Day One, declared that the hard work of his predecessor did not reflect his educational priorities as the state’s new governor, and spend the next few months crafting an application in his own image.  Instead, the app went forward.  New Jersey came in 18th place, and the rework has been in process for the past few months.

So where does New Jersey go from here?  Some seem to think the current application is damaged goods, that the loss of union support will be too great for Joysey to overcome.  Those critics forget, though, that US EdSec Arne Duncan has been preaching that strong reform is more important that kumbaya universal buy-in.  So do ed reformers in New Jersey now need to pick sides, choosing Camp Christie or Camp Bret?

Hardly.  Christie made a shrewd political move.  He knows it is still a long shot that New Jersey will win a RttT grant.  (Particularly with Duncan saying there may only be another 10 or so winners).  If NJ wins, Christie wants to do so on his own terms.  Winning Race means having to take on new responsibilities in reporting and accountability.  It also likely means having to pony in additional dollars from the state coffers to make good on the promises to the feds.  If Christie is going to do that, in what is a disastrous financial climate in his state, he needs to do it on his terms.  His house, his rules, if you will.  He won the election, so folks can do it his way or no way at all.  With so many strings attached to the funding, and the US Department of Education talking about withdrawing funding if they find the application is not being followed to the letter, it is only natural for Christie to seek to pull as many of the strings involved here as possible.

And as for Schundler?  He deserves major points for reaching out and trying to actually work with NJEA.  Yes, his credibility with the union may be a little damaged in the short term.  He now needs to demonstrate he can deliver on the specific deals he may cut.  (And that requires a team at the State Department of Ed cast in his image, which is in process.)  But he’s shown a willingness to deal and has demonstrated a bit on an independent streak from the good governor.  Whether that was intended or not, it can now be used to help move specific state efforts on other school improvement efforts.

Now is the time for both leaders to put a bold, yet simple, plan for education improvement forward.  Communities across the state have turned back efforts to raise taxes to provide additional dollars for the schools.  Now is the time for the state to step forward and issue three challeges, challenges focused on outcomes and students.  For instance, scrap efforts to award high school diplomas to anyone who is 18 and with a pulse and ensure that a NJ high school diploma means more than an attendance certificate.  Figure out what is working in places like Newark and replicating those programs and initiatives in other struggling urban centers.  Implement a real strategic plan for charter school expansion across the state.  Even figure out the best practices that can be learned from the Abbott Schools, and apply them in other schools (without the promise of big dollars).  

Address a couple of those issues, offer some measurements to know the state is making progress, and remind parents, business leaders, and even teachers’ unions of what you are doing and why you are doing it, and you could have some real progress.  Christie provides the global vision, Schundler leads the troops on the ground.  All get to declare victory.

One thought on ““The Incredibly Shrinking Education Commissioner”

  1. The NJEA has played for years a rule or destroy game and is hated even by the Democrats in the legislature. So Christie was not only right but smart in taking them on. Now that they have chose to offer up the younger members in order to fight his 1 and half percent medical insurance fee, he has exposed them for the top heavy bureaucracy they are.

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