On Sep 28, I attended Governor Chris Christie’s townhall meeting in Old Bridge, focused on his proposals for education reform. It’s the first time I go to a townhall organized by someone I support. The ones I’ve attended before were organized by Democrats and resulted in a lot of frustrated attendees, vociferations, protests and so on, due to the extreme views of the speakers. Rush Holt even decided that “townhalls have a negative connotation”, without thinking that maybe his ideas have negative implications. So in a way I expected a lot of discontent union members to show up, especially in Democratic Old Bridge from Democratic Middlesex County. To my surprise, most of the people inside the packed room (a few hundred peoples) were supporting the Christie Reform Agenda, were enthusiastic about his proposals, and have him many rounds of standing ovations.
The Governor started kinda like an E! channel show, with about five minutes dedicated to movie reviews. He talked about The Cartel, but especially about the newly released Waiting for Superman. There’s no coincidence, as these movies are about failed public school systems. So he went straight to the topic of the day – education. And today he didn’t speak about compensation, benefits, guaranteed pay raises or (lack of) contributions to health insurance, but about one thing: teacher performance.
His first example, as it relates to his recent joint appearance with Mayor Booker of Newark and CEO Mark Zuckerberg (or Zuckerman as Booker repeatedly called him) of Facebook, was about the abysmal Newark school system. Over there, only 1 in 2 children graduate from high school. You can say this is bad enough. But 95% of those students who decide to go to college need remedial education to bring them up to the level of college admission knowledge! What this means is that high school tests are rigged so those teachers can make themselves look good and keep their jobs!
The problem with public (unionized) education in NJ (and other states) is that it doesn’t take into account AT ALL teachers’ performance. The system doesn’t reward good teachers and punish bad teachers. It just maintains a status quo where everyone has a guaranteed job, a guaranteed salary, a guaranteed pay raise. Imagine another enterprise, a private company, where at the end of the year, the boss comes to one of the worst employees and says “Congrats for surviving one more year! Here’s your bonus and your 5% raise for next year!”. Does anyone see that possible?? Well, it’s the reality of unionized education, where the only test you have to pass in order to keep your job and get a raise is “to breathe”. That’s all you have to do!
Chris Christie said “I don’t attack teachers. I attack BAD teacher”. And later: “I don’t bash teachers, I bash stubborn, self-interested unions”. It’s the unions that have created the so called “rubber rooms” in New York City. A rubber room is a room where the worst teachers are sent to just do nothing… watch TV, read newspapers, play cards, while getting paid full salary and benefits. Just because it’s so hard and expensive to fire them that it’s more economically feasible to pay them full salary to do nothing! That’s the reality of public education.
The Governor said the NJ Legislature needs to act on several bills. One is about prohibiting using seniority as a basis for deciding compensation. It goes back to the previous example. Right now, salaries, benefits and pay raises are obtained automatically, simply by breathing for one more year. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best or the worst teacher, you get the same. I don’t think it’s even necessary to ask what’s then the incentive to be a good teacher?? Christie’s proposal is very simple: compensation should be based only on merit. Good teachers get paid more, and bad teachers get paid less or get FIRED. Also, he suggested that additional degrees shouldn’t be a criteria for boosting a salary, as a lot of teachers get free Masters’ degrees (I mean, paid by the taxpayers) in non-related subjects, just to get a pay increase.
Chris Christie’s 2nd legislative proposal is about tenure. The way tenure is used now in public education is illogical. Tenure was introduced in higher education in order to stimulate professors to be free thinkers and to engage in creative debate, without fearing for their job. But it’s been adopted by the public education system as a synonym for “job guarantee”. 3rd grade teachers don’t engage in phylosophical debates, the hide behind tenure as an excuse for their performance. Imagine the following discussion a principal can have with a parent: “Your daughter’s 3rd grade teacher is really bad, but you know we can’t fire her. Lucky us, we got more funding from the state, so we’re gonna give her a pay raise this year, and try to talk to her into bettering herself. And who knows, maybe next year she’ll do a better job”. The thing is that the daughter of that parent has only one year in 3rd grade. And that more money won’t make that teacher better. But this is the reality of our public, unionized education.
I think teachers should be like eveybody else working in this country: you do your job well, you keep it. You do a bad job, you get fired. Chris Christie’s proposal wasn’t that common sense (or “radical”, as the Democrats would call it), he just proposed that tenure should be granted or revoked based on teacher performance. I’m sure it would still be very hard to revoke someone’s tenure, but it’s a small step forward.
After his speech, the Governor said he’s ready for “the fun part of the program, the one most likely to get on YouTube”: questions from the public. He responded pretty much on point to all of them, as they were about common sense issues like education (mostly) or public employees. He seemed a little bit upset only when the issues of accrued sick time was raised. In case you didn’t know, public employees are allowed a certain amount of sick days per year, which accrue unlimited over their career, and when you retire you get PAID for all those unused sick days. Sounds sick, doesn’t it??? The Governor errupted saying that “if after 20 years on the job you haven’t used any sick days, you shouldn’t asked to be paid for that, you should go to church, get on your knees, and thank God for your good health”. But really, can anyone find any similar arrangement in any other American enterprise? There were people who retired this year and were paid by the State (meaning us, taxpayers), $900,000 (Nine Hundred Thousand Dollars) in accrued sick time. This makes ME sick! The best the Governor could do was to cap those payments at $15k/person. Still a lot, but the best you can achieve with a Democratic legislature driven by special interest groups (read: Unions).
Someone asked about RGGI, which is the local equivalent of Cap & Trade, used by several liberal Northeast states. I was looking forward to hearing the Governor’s opinion about this, and can’t say I was very satisfied. He said he’s a bit opposed to it, because big industrial states like Pennsylvania are not participating, so the program is totally ineffective and even more, creates higher costs of doing business in NJ, while Pennsylvania can attract more of those businesses away from NJ. But Chris Christie didn’t specifically address the fact that it costs small businesses a lot of money and ultimately we, the citizens of NJ, have to pay all those costs associated with Tax&Trade.
Finally, Chris Christie’s best quote about Democrats came as related to a question about vouchers and charter schools: “They don’t like choice, because it allows people to walk away from failures”. This is true about so many aspects about our life. Democrats would like to mandate and regulate everything (what to eat, what car to drive, what light bulbs to use, etc), because people won’t “choose” something they don’t like unless they’re forced to or left with no other choice.