N.J. school board president: Teachers unions need a strategy makeover

When a school board president tells the New Jersey Education Association that its lobbyists and spokespeople “appear conditioned to defend the status quo with Pavlovian predictability,” it’s a clear sign there is more nuance to the debate over education reform than the union is willing to acknowlege. Laura Mercer, a former college instructor and current president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County, N.J., begins her piece today in NJ Spotlight by highlighting the party affiliations of some of the most serious education reformers in America and in New Jersey, pointing out that they’re from the Democratic Party the union has been historically aligned with.

“In both policy and politics, education reform is neither red nor blue,” Waters writes. “It’s purple.”

To that end, Waters has urged the NJEA to “eschew anachronistic slogans for 21st century strategies” by considering three suggestions. She writes:

–While the NJEA’s publicity propounds that “high-quality public charter schools” are “one component of an innovative, progressive system of public education,” the union seems to spend a lot of time deriding these autonomous public schools, even those in districts suffering from decades of educational neglect. Get out in front of the issue and announce a pilot program of NJEA-sponsored charter schools. Your sister union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), did the same thing in New York City years ago and won accolades. Consider teaming up with the Education Law Center to create rigorous, inclusive programming with unionized teachers in one of our Abbott districts. Show New Jersey how to do it right.

–Propose a merit pay program for your colleagues willing to teach in Abbott districts. No education reform initiative ever dreamed of can approximate the value of a great teacher in the classroom. However, our neediest districts struggle to retain our best educators. In New Jersey, the average percentage of classes not taught by highly qualified teachers is a praiseworthy 0.3 percent. In Camden, it’s 16.5 percent. Show the Department of Education that the NJEA is able to create a framework that offers incentives for great teachers willing to work in our most challenging classrooms.

–NJEA President Barbara Keshishian should propose an annual 2 percent cap on salary increases. Over 70 percent of a typical district’s budget is dedicated to salary and benefits. Last year’s legislation capped annual budget increases at 2 percent. Staff contracts that specify salary increases higher than 2 percent can only be paid for through cuts in instructional programs, extracurricular activities, supplies or overhead. That’s a no-win scenario for local bargaining units and the NJEA’s public image. Take the high road and offer to keep salary increases within legislated limits. Everyone — red, blue, and purple — will applaud your largesse.

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit