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Rated: E · Essay · Educational · #1662298
Published as op-ed in 4/8/10 Trenton Times, this deals with NJ's treatment of teachers.
In the interest of full disclosure, my wife, a classroom teacher and school librarian, has taught vital classroom and library skills in public and private schools in New Jersey for many years.

Throwing our Babies out with the Bathwater

Over the past couple of weeks, New Jersey’s new governor has turned our public education system inside out, and has vilified our teachers, the very people to whom we entrust the future success of our children. This governor, while his intentions may be honorable, is demonstrating his proclivity for radical surgery – not with a scalpel; not with a hatchet; rather, with a chainsaw. His proposed massive cuts to public education, announced 6 days before school districts’ budgets were due, will reverse decades of progress, and reverberate for years to come.

It wasn’t so long ago that teachers’ salaries were discerned as woefully inadequate. Their salaries haven’t improved much – it’s just that their contracts, many of which were cast in better times, are seemingly more generous than what would be negotiated today. The governor is “asking” teachers’ unions to renegotiate contracts, while at the same time, decrying the pension program the state has failed to fund. Negotiations require give and take; the governor is proposing that teachers give or NJ will take.

Where is the public outrage? Parents, who for so long have demanded so much from public education, seem to be standing by in silence. In our double income society, teachers often serve as surrogate parents, acting as mentors, confidants, and role models. The decimation of our educational system will not stem the flow of jobs out of state, improve the lives of our children, or truly reduce overall costs. In a system that is driven by incentives to teach students to pass certain tests, and in which the teachers are so constrained by “political correctness” and fear of lawsuits, the governor’s proposed financial blow is too much to bear. Instead of fixing what’s broken, it will break the whole system.

Most teachers are highly educated and extremely dedicated, devoting much of their non-class time to serving their students. Specialists teach vital skills that are the bare minimum in the 21st century – reading, research, computer science and more; they challenge our brightest students and brighten our challenged ones. While many teachers have their unpaid summers off, they spend much of the summer taking courses (at their own expense) and readying their classrooms for the next school year. In addition, they often work nights and weekends preparing for class, and purchase things for their classrooms out of their own pockets. How many other professionals would be expected to do the same thing – and do so willingly?

Teachers’ unions provide representation for a large group of employees, and negotiate contracts that, on average, are fair and equitable to their members. One could argue that such unions are too powerful and use the threat of job actions to force their will. But the fact is that many union teachers continue to work without contracts (sometimes for years) because of their dedication to their profession and their students. Again, how many other professionals would be expected to do the same thing – and do so willingly? Perhaps the reason that teachers need a strong union is that no one else will stand up for them.

Governor Christie hasn’t fully transitioned from his persona as a tough prosecutor. His speeches, if you listen carefully, resemble a prosecution: first, he makes a bold accusation; then he selectively presents evidence to support his assertions; and finally, he ends with a summation that wraps it all up. But our teachers and their unions are unaccustomed to being defendants. As a further injustice, Governor Christie also assumes the role of judge, making and interpreting the rules, and instructing an unsuspecting jury.

It is very clear that Governor Christie feels that the NJEA, and by extension, its members, are guilty of wrongdoing and need to be punished. In his prosecutorial style, he’s painted the NJEA as the criminal, and teachers as accessories. Some of it is sincere (though heavy-handed), but some is surely showmanship. As governor, though, use of the bully pulpit should be tempered to maintain a balance between righteous indignation and constructive criticism, and preserve the dignity of those who deserve neither.

Make no mistake, the budget situation is dire. With high unemployment and social service costs on the one side, and reduced tax receipts on the other, something needs to be done. But it can’t be done overnight, and it can’t be on the backs of our already underpaid and overworked teachers. The proposed reductions will surely add to the rolls of unemployment, further reduce tax receipts, and destroy a lot of goodwill among hard-working, generous, caring professionals at a time when their best efforts are needed the most.

Parents, stand up and unite behind your children’s educators; you’ve seen their great work. Senators and Assemblymen/women, stand up for the very survival of our public education system. Governor, you’ve gotten everyone’s attention, but please stand down and work constructively with your education professionals to build a better system. The livelihoods of our children, our most precious resource, depend on it.

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