New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made a splash at a Brookings Institute gathering in New York City last Thursday when called the New Jersey teachers’ union leaders “political thugs,” but he’s not the first outspoken leader to rile the state’s establishment. Three decades ago, Principal Joe Clark helped to reform Paterson, New Jersey’s decrepit East Side High — and set out a blueprint that Christie ought to follow to change New Jersey schools today.
In 1982, Clark, the new principal of a high school that local officials had called a “caldron of terror and violence,” launched the most aggressive school reform campaign in New Jersey history, expelling 300 “parasitic” students out of the gate and countless more over the next decade. He padlocked doors to keep drug dealers out and ousted insubordinate staff, firing the women’s basketball coach in 1986, for instance, for moving during the school song. Wielding a bullhorn and a baseball bat, he earned spots on the covers of Time and Mother Jones — even recognition from the Reagan administration — for the East Side miracle made into the movie Lean on Me. But throughout his tenure, his biggest opponent was the education establishment that refused to change — one aspect of Clark’s struggle to which Christie can relate.
New Jersey kids who want to learn the alphabet are better off buying soup. The state now spends up to $13,000 per student annually — the third most in the country — but still languishes at or below the national average in both grades and SAT scores. At some schools, majorities of eleventh graders failed the state-administered ninth-grade-level reading skills test. At Paterson’s John F. Kennedy High, for instance, just 28 percent of 2010 graduates passed. The state’s SAT scores tell a similar story. In New Jersey, the class of 2010 scored an average of 495 out of 800 on the SAT’s critical reading section — just below the 500-point national average — according to The College Board. New Jersey students also averaged less than 500 on the section testing English grammar. The state ranked 36th in the nation in overall SAT scores. Even Mississippi is laughing.
The New Jersey Education Association, the state teachers’ union, blames perpetual underfunding, including $800 million in cuts to the state’s 2010 education budget. So when Christie asked teachers last March to put a scheduled 1.5 percent raise toward their health insurance as part of the “shared sacrifice” with other state residents to help close a $10 billion budget gap, their union balked.
Teachers are doing alright, though. The state’s average income is $40,000 and its median household income is $55,000. But the average New Jersey high school teacher makes $62,000 — or as Christie calls it, “lunch money” — plus up to $22,000 more in healthcare benefits and three months’ summer vacation, thanks in large part to union contracts. Other officials do too. The median salary for the state’s school administrators is $115,000 and over 230 make in excess of $175,000 — more than Governor Christie himself. If the state wanted to spend this much for no results, it should have backed Spiderman on Broadway.
Union regulations also make bad apples hard to get rid of. Paterson — the same place where Clark made his stand in the 1980s — spent four years and $400,000 to fire one teacher accused of repeatedly hitting students. Because of the complicated dismissal process — Education Action Group breaks it into 15 distinct steps, some of them lasting months — New Jersey school administrators brought fewer than 40 cases against the state’s 120,000 teachers in 2010.
Clark’s biggest accomplishment as principal at East Side was getting rid of the space-wasters and reallocating their resources to kids who wanted to succeed. His targets were derelict students, but the same principle applies to underperforming staff and seems to be resonating with the next generation of school reformers. Last spring, Central Falls, Rhode Island’s superintendent fired all 74 teachers at one high school, some making up to four times the town’s $22,000 median income, for refusing to help with after-school tutoring. Their union later gave in. And last month, the Florida House voted to tie teachers’ salaries more to their own students’ performance. But Christie’s fight against New Jersey’s teachers’ union is the most public of them all. The union spent $6.6 million in 2010 alone on ads against Christie’s cuts to the education budget.
Since Clark and his baseball bat left the headlines two decades ago with his 1990 retirement, it might seem strange now to hear another straight-talker rail against the establishment. But it takes a little of that “Crazy Joe” mentality to stare down a union so manipulative and powerful that it could’ve been Bush’s vice president. Christie ought to follow Clark’s lead.
Dorian Davis is a former MTV HITS star turned libertarian writer. He’s been published in Business Week, NY Daily News, XY & more. He’s an NYU graduate and National Journalism Center alum. He teaches journalism at Marymount Manhattan College.