Schundler says he’s open to working with NJEA

It’s tempting to read Gov.-elect Christopher Christie’s nomination of Bret Schundler as commissioner of education as a shot across the bow of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the state’s powerful teachers union.

Schundler, the mayor of Jersey City from 1992 to 2001 and two-time Republican gubernatorial candidate, is an unabashed supporter of school vouchers and charter schools– ideas vigorously opposed by the NJEA, which clashed with Christie during the gubernatorial campaign and has been subject to relentless criticism from him over the last two months.

But Schundler said that he doesn’t see it that way.

“Oh no, absolutely not,” he said. “I’m looking to having a very constructive relationship with them.”

In fact, Schundler planned to pop into their Trenton offices sometime in the late afternoon or evening.  He said that there has been “a lot of water under the bridge” since the Wall Street Journal identified him as the NJEA’s “Public Enemy #1” in a 1993 editorial. 

“The relationship is a lot better than it has been in the past, and I hope it will be better in four years than it is today,” he said.  “We’re not always going to agree, but I think there will be lots of opportunities to make legislation better.” 

And – at least for today — the NJEA held its fire. 

“We certainly congratulate him for his nomination as the commissioner of education,” said NJEA President Barbara Keshishian in a phone interview.  “We’re hopeful that in his new position he will have a relationship with us at NJEA.  We’ll listen to experienced professional educators and work collaboratively with them”

Nevertheless, the views of Schundler and the NJEA on school vouchers are intractable.  As for charter schools, Keshishian said “We’re not against charter schools, but we don’t see them as being a universal panacea for any of the problems or the reforms that we’re trying to look for in some of our districts.”

Members of Christie’s transition team were frank on what they thought the appointment meant.

“I think it sends a message to the quote unquote education establishment that there is change coming,” said Shelley Skinner, a registered Democrat who is active in Jersey City politics and serves on Christie’s education transition team.  Skinner is the director of development and community relations at the Learning Community Charter School, which Christie visited on the campaign trail. 

Schundler, who turns 51 tomorrow, founded the Golden Door Charter School when he was mayor of Jersey City. 

“I give Christie a lot of credit for going with a strong education reform person.  It’s been a long time since we’ve seen someone who is strongly for school choice,” said Skinner.

Peter Denton, a member of Christie’s transition team and the chairman and founder of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3) — which champions school vouchers — was thrilled with the Schundler pick and attended the press conference announcing it.

“Does it send a message?  I think it confirms a message,” he said.  “The Governor-elect ran on dramatic change in our public education system that includes things that the NJEA doesn’t support. They tried very hard to defeat him and they didn’t, so I think he’s made a choice of someone for this position who’s going to support the policies on which he ran.” 

  Schundler says he’s open to working with NJEA