There is no doubt who is in charge of education policy in the state of New Jersey. His name is Chris Christie and he is the governor. It is not the education commissioner, nor is it anyone else or any organization. He may be right, he may be wrong, but he is definitely in charge. As for Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, who had dreams of becoming governor and actually ran for office, it is clear to him that, as commissioner of education, all cabinet members serve at the pleasure—or in this particular case, the displeasure—of the governor.
The backdrop is pretty simple. Chris Christie is at war with the New Jersey Education Association—the powerful lobby that represents public school teachers. That war has not been good for anyone, particularly the students in our public schools. However, the governor has drawn a very clear line in the sand. He has called the unions bullies, and they have called him a bully right back.
But, in this case, there is a lot of money involved—millions of dollars. In fact, up to $400 million in federal school funding is up for grabs under an initiative called “Race to the Top,” in which states across the country compete by submitting applications to the Federal Department of Education. Late last week, Education Commissioner Schundler negotiated what he thought was an agreement with the NJEA on an application that would be submitted by the state to the feds for this initiative.
As the education commissioner, Schundler compromised with the teacher’s union on both teacher tenure and merit pay; except, before he did that, the commissioner should have checked with the governor who had no intention of compromising on these issues. Specifically, Schundler reached an agreement with the union that “layoffs would be determined by seniority, not by merit”. He also reached a compromise on the issue of merit pay and what the criteria would be to make such decisions. The union did not want merit pay to be based on student performance and again, Schundler compromised. I’m not saying Schundler was right and I don’t know if he’s wrong, but I do know this—in the Christie Administration, no one, and I mean no one, negotiates big deals (and maybe even smaller deals) but the governor himself.
Immediately, Christie put a kibosh on the Schundler NJEA “compromise.” He made it clear that the commissioner should have checked with him before reaching the agreement. Further, he publicly chastised and, in fact, embarrassed Schundler to the point where the commissioner’s credibility has been significantly weakened.
The NJEA initially accused Chris Christie of a “bait and switch” negotiating ploy, but that’s not at all what happened. Simply put, Schundler cut a deal that he wasn’t in a position to cut and Christie called him on it. You can argue forever about how the governor did it, or whether he should have been so public in his criticism of his education commissioner, but it doesn’t take a political genius to have seen that this conflict between Christie and Schundler was very predictable.
Early on, I sensed that it would be very difficult for Schundler—who is a smart, articulate and outspoken education reform advocate—to take a subordinate role in the governor’s administration. Actually, I was very surprised at his appointment, not because he isn’t qualified, but because being a cabinet member requires a certain personality and an ability to understand that you don’t call the shots, your boss does, even in the department that you are allegedly leading.
Ultimately, the State of New Jersey submitted an application to the feds for funding in the “Race to the Top” without the NJEA’s support. One can only hope we have a shot at that money, although I’m not very hopeful or optimistic. But, one thing is crystal clear. There is only one leader in the executive branch of government and his first name is Chris and his last name is Christie. You can call him a bully, a dictator or whatever adjective comes to mind, but he is in charge.
He consistently made this fact clear in a recent live call-in I hosted on PBS called “Christie On the Line”, in which he reaffirmed he was willing to take responsibility for everything that happens on his watch, both good and bad. (Log on to caucusnj.org to view clips from this program.) I’d say that’s a pretty significant improvement from the last administration where, as nice a guy as Jon Corzine was, it was consistently unclear who was in charge or what direction Corzine was headed in.
I’d call Christie’s leadership style refreshing, although at times it is a shock to the senses. This level of candor, bluntness and in-your-face communication is something Trenton hasn’t seen in my lifetime. And, as for the public scolding of cabinet members for “going rogue”, get used to it. My sense is this isn’t going to be the last time this happens.