I have been a Democrat my whole life. As volunteers for the McGovern campaign, my mother and father would tell me stories of how, as an infant, I played on the floor of the campaign’s New York City headquarters. My first political campaign was going door-to-door during John Kerry’s first senate race in the early 1980s. Since then I have spent a significant part of my career and my personal life supporting Democrats across the country. Even a year after the last election, I am proud that we still keep our Hillary for President yard sign on our front lawn.
But like many New Jersey Democrats, I have been perplexed and angry that during this campaign cycle the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) would not only endorse a Trump Republican like Fran Grenier in the 3rd legislative district, but also spend millions of dollars attacking his opponent, the Democratic incumbent and state Senate president, Steve Sweeney.
Now, let’s be clear. I am no fan of the NJEA leadership.
In Montclair, they forced one of their top elected leaders, Sean Spiller, to serve on the township’s Board of Estimates, which oversees the town’s budget. Of course, it was no coincidence that the great majority of the town’s budget goes to teachers and that Mr. Spiller’s vote on the board was a significant conflict of interest. I was one of the many parents who voiced concern. Rather than doing the right thing, the NJEA forced a court case, which they lost, and Spiller was removed. Professionally, I worked to support the six Newark parents who recently questioned the legitimacy of New Jersey’s outdated “last in, first out” statute, which takes decisionmaking away from local school districts and dictates to superintendents that they must prioritize the seniority of teachers over their actual effectiveness. As in the Montclair case, the NJEA leadership hired lawyers and defended this inane practice, and it is still pending in the courts.
To most sensible, fair-minded people, it is common sense that a high-ranking teacher union officer should not have a controlling vote over a town budget where most of the funds go specifically to the union he represents. And to most, it seems reasonable that district superintendents should be empowered to make the best decisions for their schools at the local level, and not be regulated to lay off their best teachers, while keeping the ineffective ones.
In their mind, any type of change to our educational system is viewed as a threat, even meaningful, collaborative, and rational change. This is why, with over $100 million a year in union dues, the NJEA spends literally tens of millions of dollars each year on lobbying, advertising, campaign donations, and lawyering throughout New Jersey, all to keep our education system exactly the way it is.
Their most recent decision, to endorse Grenier, a Republican known for supporting Donald Trump’s vindictive agenda, in a heated race, is most shameful, especially in the eyes of Democrats, and provides further insight and understanding into the motives of the NJEA leadership.
By running a campaign against Sweeney, who has at times has fairly questioned the NJEA leadership, a message to all Democrats in New Jersey has been sent, including one to our presumptive new governor: if you question us in anyway, if you question the status quo, we will come after you.
In recent days, political pundits and astute columnist have not only pointed out these tactics by the NJEA leadership, but have also commented on their out-of-touch salaries.
From 2010 to 2015, as public school budgets around our state struggled severely, the top eight officers of the New Jersey Education Association made over $20 million in salary combined, and that is a very big chunk of change.
These astronomical salaries make their interests more aligned with a billionaire, like Trump, rather than the union members they represent, so supporting Grenier, I guess, makes some sense. These large salaries of NJEA leadership have also put each of them out of touch with the common concerns and values of most public school parents, which could be another reason that their priorities are so out of whack. Most of all, it’s the status quo that has brought the NJEA leadership these salaries, along with a specific luxury and lifestyle, which could be the reason they choose to rally against change at all costs, even attempting to destroy Democrats who question their policies.
At some point, the NJEA leadership will need to answer if they are truly promoting quality public education in New Jersey and advocating on behalf of the actual interests of their own union members, or if they are simply more focused on keeping their own personal lifestyles of luxury intact. For those of us who are Democrats, after this election has concluded, we must not forget that the NJEA supported Donald Trump.
Matthew Frankel is the founder and president of MDF Strategies, a New Jersey-based communications and engagement firm. He has served as a Capitol Hill press secretary, a corporate communications executive, and is a 2017 Leadership Newark Fellow.