Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Chris Christie, Culture Warrior

It's clear -- the Wall Street Journal hearts Chris Christie. Last week, a lead editorial crowed that "New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has become the national pacesetter in state fiscal reform. . ." The Governor got his picture in the Wall Street Journal two times in one day within the past two weeks, once in connection with a lawsuit in Minnesota that had nothing to do with New Jersey (I'm sure Tim Pawlenty was none too pleased).

The focus of this love-fest is the Governor's on-going war against public employee unions, the latest salvo of which was launched a few weeks ago. The Governor unveiled a plan to reform public employee pensions by rolling back a 9% increase negotiated in 2001, eliminate cost of living adjustments for both current and future retirees, raise public employee contributions to retirement plans, make it harder to get disability benefits and lower the expected return on pension benefits from 8.25% annually to 7.5%. State workers would pay 30% of health costs, up from about 8% now, and retirees would face higher co-pays.

All of this moves State public employee health and retirement benefits closer to a private industry model, which the Wall Street Journal says is the right way to go. In fact, the Journal thinks the Governor does not go far enough, and should replace government pensions with 401(k) plans.

In an earlier op-ed, Steve Malanga of The Manhattan Institute discussed Governor Christie’s successful election campaign and the role of the NJEA. By way of reminder, the Manhattan Institute is the right-leaning think tank that issued a study showing that New Jersey’s Millionaire’s Tax caused wealthy citizens to flee the State. According to Malanga, the NJEA polled its own membership and found its members supported John Corzine by only a slight majority. Malanga posits that Christie has positioned himself on the right sife of a national anti-union culture war that has Republicans and Democrats alike distancing themselves from public employee unions.

Writes Malanga:

"Still, what we are seeing this year may mark a historic shift in American politics. If candidates around the country can repeat Mr. Christie’s strategy of winning office by taking on public unions, we could be witnessing a change akin to what happened in the late 1970s, when tax revolts in a handful of states created a nationwide momentum that eventually reflected Ronald Reagan.

The early 21st century version of tax rebellion is a head-on collision between over-burdened taxpayers and public sector unions. The many signs of union weakness suggest that after decades of expanding power, government-worker unions have met their match."

And interestingly, an article on a Minnesota court case which ran the same day as Malanga's op-ed featured a photograph of Chris Christie. The article discussed a law suit questioning whether or not Minnesota can curtail pension benefits for current retirees from state jobs. The article cited a February report from the Pew Center on the States estimates that, in the aggregate, the states face a trillion dollar gap between the pension, health care and other retirement benefits owed to public employees and the money states have set aside to pay for them. But since New Jersey is one of those states considering cuts to pension benefits for retired government workers, the outcome of the Minnesota case may impact plans in New Jersey and other states, so of course the only picture would be of Chris Christie.

So it would seem that the Wall Street Journal, now a part the Rupert Murdoch/ Fox News/ right wing echo chamber, is selling us a culture war which pits overburdened taxpayers against teachers, judges, police officer, firefighters and the like. The middle class against the middle class. And the solution is to turn state pensions over to Wall Street.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Prediction: Michelle Rhee Coming To Newark

This week, the District of Columbia held a momentous Democratic mayoral primary. Incumbent Adrian Fenty lost the nomination to challenger D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray. As Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee was vocal in her support of Fenty over Gray, scuttlebutt is that Ms. Rhee, widely seen as the national face of education reform, will soon be looking for a new job.

Governor Christie has publicly announced that he will be using Newark as a testing ground for his views on education reform, and that he will be replacing Clifford T. Janey as Newark Schools Superintendent. Ms. Rhee succeeded Mr. Janey as Chancellor in D.C., and my bet is that she will be succeeding him as Newark Superintendent as well.

My biggest question is whether or not Ms. Rhee will get a bigger salary than the Governor. Fortunately for both Ms. Rhee and Governor Christie, the Newark Superintendent position is exempt from the new $175,000 salary cap.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Ethics Of Chris Christie

The Governor has indicated that he will unveil 1 new reform initiative a week for the next 4 weeks. Initiative 1 -- ethics reform. As part of the Governor's plan, he would seek to stop people from collecting 2 public paychecks. So, for example, a teacher, fireman or policeman cannot collect a second public salary if that public employee is elected to public office.

Thus, we have an interesting opportunity to gain insight into what the Governor does and does not consider ethical. The Governor's probable concern is cronyism -- finding elected officials second jobs on the public dime so that they can afford to stay in office and vote as their patron would have them vote. For the record, the logic of extending that concern to public employees who win elections escapes me.

What I see is that this Governor is committed to using every power available to him to further his agenda. The Governor wants to weaken the control public employees have over state government. Since expanding a legitimate ethics concern to also limit the number of public officials running for office furthers that goal, the Governor sees no ethical conflict in doing so.

Simply put, the Governor believes that enlightened self-interest is the best route to the greater good. The world works best when everyone pursues their self-interest to the greatest extent possible, even to the detriment of others. Or, simply put, what's good for Chris Christie is good for the State.

And I believe that elected officials should put the public interest above self-interest, enlightened or otherwise. What's good for the State is good for Chris Christie.

So the Governor's efforts to minimize the ability of public employees to oppose him is perfectly ethical in his view. And to me it is unethical because it is in the interest of the State to have the most qualified people in office, even if those qualified people didn't vote for Chris Christie.

Friday, September 3, 2010

It's Official: Change Is Coming To Newark

Governor Christie officially let Newark Superintendant of Schools Clifford Janey know that Janey's 3 year contract will not be renewed when it expires next year. In a surprising show of generosity, the Governor is not claiming that this is a termination for cause. Yet.

The Newark school system is directly under the control of the Governor, giving the Governor a unique chance to implement reform. His intention is to make Newark a test case for his education policies and priorities, as part of his on-going effort to build his national profile. And the writing is on the wall, as the Newark Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (and not the NJEA), has already gone on record as being open to merit pay and to changes in tenure and seniority.

The next step will be to name Janey's replacement. And here the politics will get interesting. Christie will want the support of Newark mayor Cory Booker behind the next superintendant. But there may be some bad blood there, as Booker supported Christie's call for a property tax constitutional amendment just before Christie abandoned that plan. There is a difference between being a steamroller and being a dealmaker, and it may be that the Governor is about to get schooled

If nothing else, it should be educational to watch two local politicians with national reputations come together for the sake of the kids.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The True Lesson From The Race To The Top

By now, everyone in the State has heard that New Jersey is not getting $400 million in Federal education aid and that Bret Schundler got thrown under the school bus. I don't quite understand what all the hubbub is about -- the Governor's decision not to cut a deal wiht the NJEA was what cost us the money. All the rest is political theater, and not very good theater at that. It does make me wonder whether or not the Governor's smearing of Schundler will cost him any points on the far right -- the folks Schundler was intended to help bring into the fold.

The true story from last week is that Washington, D.C. did qualify for $75 million in Race To The Top funds. The District's implementation of a teacher evaluation system that takes test scores into account was cited as one factor that helped the District into the winners' circle. In fact, test scores accounted for 50% of a teacher's evaluation.

This should be cause for great celebration on the right. District Chancellor Michelle Rhee is a favorite of proponents of charter schools, school vouchers and teacher union busting. The agreement between the district and the Washington Teachers Union is being hailed by some as an example of the direction school districts must take in their union negotiations.

The problem is that the District's teacher evalution process has proven to be somewhat controversial. According to the WTU and the American Federation of Teachers, Chancellor Rhee rushed her evaluation system into use before it was fully tested. The WTU is considering legal action pertaining to the firing of 6% of the District's teachers as a result of the allegedly flawed evaluations.

The issue is whether or not using one year's test scores to fire a teacher is an unfair labor practice. And there is data which strongly suggests that teacher evaluations which only take one year's work into account are flawed. The Wall Street Journal reports that "a large proportion of teachers who rate highly one year fall to the bottom of the charts the next year. For example, in a group of elementary-school teachers who ranked in the top 20% in five Florida counties early last decade, more than three in five didn't stay in the top quintile the following year, according to a study published last year in the journal Education Finance and Policy."

Problems with using test scores to evaluate teachers are well known. Students aren't always assigned to teachers randomly. A teacher who gets a higher percentage of lower scoring students due to that teachers' ability to help those students will be rewarded with a lower evaluation score. Elementary school teachers may only have 15 or 20 students, which is a very small pool on which to judge them. And while using test scores from multiple years helps, it does not solve the problem entirely. The Wall Street Journal cites a report from the Department of Education which shows that, even under an evaluation system using three years of data, one in four teachers will be misclassified.

Awareness of the dangers in rushing teacher evaluation systems into practice cuts across the political spectrum. The WSJ quoutes Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, as saying that "[b]ecause education tends to have this moral-crusade element . . . we tend to rush to use things before they are refined or really fully baked."

The Obama administration has been known to take the position that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. But at least with respect to teacher evaluations, let's hope that the majority of school districts out there recognize that there is no point to an evaluation process that weeds out the good teachers inadvertently.