IT’S NOT a good time to be in education. Governor Christie declared war on the New Jersey
Education Association last year. In Christie’s English primer, Keshishian — as in NJEA
President Barbara Keshishian — is a four-letter word.
The assault on education was not restricted solely to the most powerful state teachers’ union. It’s
been like watching a very long professional hockey game. Christie first face-washed his
commissioner of education, Bret Schundler, over a compromise with the NJEA. Then the
governor went for a full body check after the state lost federal Race to the Top education funding
over a bungled application. Schundler was out of the game.
After unions and Schundler took hits, the governor aimed his sights at district superintendents.
Woe unto the superintendent who was paid more than the governor. While a state university
like Rutgers is free to spend nearly $2 million on a football coach and assume $100 million in
debt to upgrade its football stadium to ensure that the $2 million coach doesn’t leave, school
districts have to be personally micromanaged by the governor.
School budgets and superintendent contracts are currently micro-managed by state-appointed
executive county superintendents. As a parting New Year’s gift, seven of these county
superintendents read last week by e-mail, no less, that “Your last work day is today.”
Their three-year contracts expired at the end of the year — last Friday. These superintendents,
whether they represented the previous Corzine administration’s priorities rather than Christie’s,
deserved to know months in advance whether their jobs would continue. Clearly, civility isn’t
one of the things being reformed now or soon in New Jersey.
Personally, I would do away with much, if not all, of county government. Home rule is so
entrenched in the culture of New Jersey that it is impossible to eliminate local municipalities.
But there is little lasting love for county government from anyone other than the local political
power brokers who control much of state government and ensure that their sycophants have
appointed and/or elected offices.
The governor is not planning to dismantle county government. He is intent on creating chaos in
public schools. He has demoralized teachers, castigated the NJEA, publicly humiliated his nowformer
education commissioner and selectively targeted district superintendents’ salaries, while
leaving other higher-paid state employees in the clear.
Now he has undermined the worth of county superintendents, leaving a third of the state’s
counties without one.
Taking a page from New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Christie also wants to relax rules for
district superintendent qualifications. Anyone with a bachelor’s degree, managerial experience
and no criminal record could be hired. While that last requirement eliminates some former
public officials, the bar is about as low as it can go. To suggest that a good manager with no
education background is the right person to set educational priorities for an entire school
district is absurd.
Districts need strong business managers and that is the place for motivated private-sector
individuals with keen managerial experience. There may be better ways of running physical
plants, fixing boilers and replacing roofs. But the real business of schools is educating children.
Smart corporate franchises require their top managers to spend time inside their stores and
restaurants before promoting them up. If it makes sense for selling hamburgers, it damn-well
makes sense for teaching children.
It is not that the current system is working perfectly. It is not. But it is not broken on a statewide
level, either. And unlike a manufacturing plant that can be closed while it is being retooled,
public schools must remain open during the process.
Students are the casualties of Christie’s war. And it does not go unnoticed that the governor
chooses to keep his own children out of the war zone. Parents who cannot afford private schools
or Christmas vacations to Walt Disney World have little choice but to watch political weapons of
mass destruction fall on their local districts while they listen to platitudes about how it will get
better at some future date. None of that does a whit of good for children caught in the crossfire.
All New Jersey counties need superintendents as school budgets are being developed. Three
months from now is too late in the process. Unless the governor’s poorly timed Disney vacation
was a job-recruitment trip, these districts will be leaderless for awhile. But then again, given the
governor’s new standards for school leaders, he may have found seven qualified little managers
in the Magic Kingdom: Bashful, Sleepy, Sneezy, Grumpy, Happy, Dopey and Doc. They won’t
demand salaries higher than Christie’s either; they work for a song.
Alfred P. Doblin is the editorial page editor of The Record. Contact him at
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow AlfredPDoblin on Twitter.