The Rise and Decline of the NJEA

In 1991, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the state teachers’ union, reached the zenith of its power.  The NJEA opposed the teacher pension funding reforms proposed by the then Governor Jim Florio and therefore endorsed most 1991 Republican candidates for the state Senate and Assembly.  This support of the NJEA in the 1991 election was perceived by the media and political pundits as being a significant factor in the Republican attainment of veto-proof majorities.  

  

 The major cause of the 1991 New Jersey GOP electoral triumph was obviously the revolt against the Florio income and sales tax hikes.   Another key aspect of that Republican campaign was the support the NJGOP received from the National Rifle Association (NRA), who viewed Florio as anathema due to his success in enacting the assault weapons ban.  

 

Nevertheless, the NJEA emerged from Election 1991 as undoubtedly the most powerful New Jersey special interest group.  As a senior policy advisor on the 1992-1993 Assembly Republican staff, I handled education issues and was tasked with the responsibility of dealing  with the NJEA on an almost daily basis.  I always felt that their perceived power was greater than their actual power.  In politics, however, perception often becomes reality, and an NJEA endorsement was highly valued throughout the ensuing decade by candidates for governor and the legislature. 

 

Now fast forward to 2011 and the Quinnipiac Poll reported on February 11. 

 

It is obvious that the New Jersey electorate believes that teachers are professionals who serve a most vital societal need and should be paid good salaries and benefits, including pensions and health insurance.  This is a cornerstone of the legacy of the administration of Tom Kean, viewed by most as New Jersey’s most successful 20th century governor.  According to the Quinnipiac Poll, by a 62 – 17 percent margin,  New Jersey voters have a favorable opinion of public school teachers. 

   

Yet while the citizens of New Jersey are pro-teacher, they also view the NJEA most negatively. According to the same Quinnipiac Poll, their opinion of the teachers’ union is 44 – 27 percent unfavorable.   

 

Thus, twenty years after 1991, an NJEA endorsement this November may be more of a liability for a legislative candidate than an asset.   Three reasons stand out as the causes for the growing antipathy of New Jerseyans towards the teachers’ union.

 

First, the name, New Jersey Education Association is a misnomer.  The NJEA does not represent education; it represents educators.  Teachers are entitled to a union that represents their best interests, both in terms of compensation and working conditions.  The NJEA, however, inadmissibly claims to represent both children and education itself.  This is an outrageous fraud – and the public knows it. 

 

One of the major victims of this egregious misrepresentation was former Assembly Speaker Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian. Throughout his legislative career, Chuck was a major advocate for public education in New Jersey.  

 

Haytaian had served on his local school board at the beginning of his political career, and he had received NJEA endorsements in his various Assembly reelection campaigns.  All three of his children attended public schools.  After Chuck became Assembly Speaker in 1992, he ensured the passage of virtually every single measure on the NJEA’s legislative agenda.

  

When Chuck ran for U.S. Senate in 1994, I fully expected the NJEA to endorse Senator Frank Lautenberg, the incumbent.  Lautenberg had been a diligent supporter of the NJEA Congressional agenda, and I knew how the NJEA normally would protect friendly incumbents.   

 

What I did not expect was that the NJEA would actually slander Chuck.  When the NJEA made their anticipated endorsement of Lautenberg, their  then Director of Government Relations, Dolores Corona, described Chuck as a man “who didn’t really care about the kids.”  That was unforgivable defamatory rhetoric, especially from an organization whose leadership down through the years has maintained a posture of supreme ethics and integrity. 

 

In fact, it is the NJEA practice of continuous invective against those who dare disagree with them that constitutes the second reason for the alienation of the NJEA from the New Jersey electorate.  A classic case was the behavior of NJEA leadership towards Governor Chris Christie last year.

 

After taking office in January, 2010, Christie requested that the state teachers accept a one year freeze in pay, and contribute 1.5 percent of their salary to their health benefit cost.  This would minimize the impact of the cuts in aid to school districts.  These cuts were necessary in order to balance the state’s budget without tax increases.

 

Whether or not one agreed with the Governor’s proposal, it hardly justified the invective of the leadership of the Bergen County Education Association, the local of the NJEA, who issued a memo detailing a series of actions to protest Christie’s school aid cuts and ended with a “prayer”for the Governor’s death.   

     

While the NJEA state leadership apologized for the offensive memorandum and characterized the “prayer” as a joke,, their refusal to fire the Bergen County Education Association president who signed the memo constituted not only a slap in the Governor’s face but also an insult to all those who respect the office of the Governor and believe in civil dialogue between political adversaries.  Such invective on the part of NJEA officials who claim to represent the interests of children and education only served to further alienate the New Jersey electorate. 

 

Yet perhaps the major reason for the declining public regard for the NJEA can be found in the failure of their leadership to understand a simple sentence of wisdom found in the Jewish Talmud: “If you grab too much, you get nothing.”

 

As stated above, the citizenry of New Jersey want to pay their public school teachers good salaries and benefits.  There is a limit, however, as to how much property taxes and income taxes New Jersey families can pay for public education, especially in difficult economic times.   That is why so many school budgets were rejected by the voters last year.

 

Democrats remember what the NJEA tried to do to former State Senate President John Lynch when he called attention to the fact that teachers were receiving raises of six percent annually during the recession which began in 1990.  I must emphasize that I hold no brief for John Lynch.   While he was a brilliant legislator, he later followed a corrupt course of conduct for which he was justly punished under our criminal justice system.

 

In response to his comments regarding teacher salary hikes during the aforesaid recession, the NJEA targeted him for defeat in the 1991 election and played a major leadership role in one of the most vicious legislative campaigns ever fought against an incumbent New Jersey state legislator.  Lynch survived the NJEA’s effort to unseat him, but twenty years later, there are a substantial number of Democrats who still are resentful about what the NJEA tried to do to him.  Many Democrats who are not fans of Chris Christie will tell you they have grudging respect for his being willing to confront the NJEA.

  

Thus, the reasons for the decline of public respect for the NJEA are clear.  Yet the sad fact is that the real victims of NJEA past misdeeds may be teachers themselves.

 

In the forthcoming discussions on tenure, rank and file teachers may understand the need to reform the system in order to facilitate the removal of incompetent or nonperforming teachers.  Yet they will want the criteria for retention to be fair.  Above all, they will want protection from arbitrary or capricious dismissal due to either a teacher’s dissenting political beliefs or the personal animus of a powerful citizen in the community towards an individual teacher.

 

Unfortunately, the teachers of New Jersey must rely on the leadership of the NJEA to protect their interests in the teacher retention reforms.   This is a leadership whose credibility has declined substantially over the past two decades. Due to the decline in public esteem for the NJEA, the teachers themselves are indeed in a much weakened position. 

 

Every day, the vast majority of the teachers in New Jersey’s public schools do an outstanding job in educating the next generation of New  Jerseyans in the skills necessary for career and citizenship.  These teachers deserve more effective representation than that now being given to them by the NJEA.

 

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and eight federally recognized Indian nations. Under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, he served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University. 

  

 

The Rise and Decline of the NJEA