BY PAT SUMMERS
With a state budget that focuses almost entirely on cutting spending rather than raising revenues, it’s no surprise that Governor Chris Christie has targeted publicly funded teachers and education — astutely transferring financial problems from the state to local municipalities.
As proven on April 20, he can persuade a majority of the voting public — a.k.a. the disgruntled property tax-paying public — to defeat school budgets in districts where teachers refused to accept a pay freeze. The incongruity of a governor acting against his own state education system and its students was obscured by the elections results: for the first time since 1976, the majority of New Jersey’s school budgets were voted down.
Talk about a “bully pulpit.” Or as a letter to the Times of Trenton had it, “in taking money from the needy and giving it to the greedy,” Christie is a “reverse Robin Hood.” And that’s one of the nicest names he’s been called lately.
Christie’s latest maneuver against teachers is his plan to reduce pension and health benefits. Next month, he’ll request the passage of bills (1) requiring those who retire after August 1 to pay more toward health benefits and (2) changing how pension benefits are calculated, resulting in a loss of income.
Obviously, Christie hopes that rather than continue teaching and accept the projected cuts, eligible veteran teachers may opt out this summer. (Those retiring by August 1 will get a free pass.)
Of course, if seasoned, master teachers are forced to retire early for this reason, the schools, and the students, will be the losers — only for starters.
Overall, according to a Star-Ledger analysis, 20 percent of the state’s certified teachers are qualified for retirement. Should this happen, the two Mercer County districts probably most in need of excellent veteran teachers — the city of Trenton and the Mercer County Special Services District — could lose the highest number of them. In Trenton, those eligible to retire represent about 31 percent of the total, while the Special Services District virtually tied, at 30 percent.
And it gets worse, both for New Jersey students and fledgling teachers in the faculty room. More than 42 percent of those with doctorates and 25 percent of those with master’s degrees would be eligible to retire.
Through this shortsighted approach, the old management axiom, “Trust the veterans,” could become obsolete by September. Sure, the ranks may be re-filled with younger teachers inexplicably willing to enter a profession where they’re insulted, devalued and threatened. But they’ll lack for the “voices of experience” new teachers have traditionally had on staff, and their road to master teacher status becomes much longer.
All that will make a difference very quickly. Everyone in a town loses when school funding is cut. Ultimately, students who are less well-educated can only contribute less to their communities. Possibly less likely to get or hold jobs, they could become additional drains on the already reeling economy.
Not only does Christie dismiss the incalculable value of teacher experience, but he’s also treating the state’s fiscal problem with woefully outdated — and discredited — management techniques of his own. He’s practicing top-down, power-over “Scientific Management” — whereby employees lose dignity and are treated like machines, with money as the incentive.
Our state’s fiscal problems are not unique in the country. But Christie’s answer — a focus on cutting spending — has put New Jersey into “a small peer group,” the New York Times reported last month. Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia are all led by Republicans, a number with national aspirations.
As has been counter-argued on line and on the street, Christie’s selective about the groups he asks to sacrifice. He’s not calling on doctors, lawyers or bankers; nor is he asking millionaires to do their bit — which would be easy enough through re-enactment of the “millionaire’s tax,” which he insists won’t happen.
Finally, the ranks of those exempt from sacrifice also include the political appointees on Christie’s staff. Their salaries reportedly exceed the total for the same group under Governor Corzine.