The blog of Academe Magazine. Opinions published here do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.
For the past five to six months, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been confronting a seemingly ever-increasing number of legislative and legal investigations into misconduct by his immediate subordinates, starting with the politically motivated decision to close lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge but expanding into seeming improprieties in how federal funds allocated for Sandy relief have been used to leverage private development projects and to reward political loyalists.
The national media initially paid scant attention to the story, focusing more on the then presidential frontrunner’s brusque and often derisive dismissals of the inquiries being doggedly pursued by local investigative journalists than on the crux of the matter–that Christie either has lied about his awareness of and perhaps even his direct involvement in what has occurred, or he has been woefully and inexplicably oblivious to what his most immediate, senior advisors have been doing.
Having adopted a grossly simplistic storyline about Christie, the national media was loathe to abandon it. That storyline extrapolated from two details—Christie’s literal and figurative embrace of President Obama during the Sandy crisis and at the height of the 2012 presidential election and his subsequent landslide re-election as governor in 2013. And so, in an age of entrenched political partisanship and gerrymandered political advantage, this Republican governor of a heavily Democratic state briefly became the seeming embodiment of bipartisanship, beloved by the residents of the state not in spite of his bull-in-a-china-shop persona but because of it. In a period of escalating political impasse, Christie seemed to embody a refreshing “can-do” attitude toward governing.
So Christie was seen as an anomaly in comparison to the wave of Republican governors who were initially elected a year later than him across the Middle Atlantic and Midwestern states. Whereas governors such as Corbett in Pennsylvania, Kasich in Ohio, Snyder in Michigan, and Walker in Wisconsin used new or enhanced Republican majorities in their state legislature to bulldoze their opposition and pass radical legislation that quickly revived their political opposition by enraging labor unions, progressive community groups, and professional women, Christie seemed to be almost as popular among Democrats as among Republicans and Independents.
Increasingly, however, that media-constructed story is being exposed for being as thin as the most facilely fabricated campaign literature. It is becoming increasingly apparent that Christie is as much a conventional bully as a bull in a china shop. The beginning for the end for most bullies is the decision by a few people to stand up to them and to expose what they have been doing. Once the cracks in the façade of irresistibility and inevitability start to widen, it is surprising how fast the whole thing collapses.
A recent piece in Labor Notes highlights two much clarified realities about Christie and his administration. First, for all of the efforts to brand him as a moderate, he has attacked public education and public-employee unions with as much determination as any of the other, seemingly more radical Republican governors in the Middle Atlantic and Midwestern states. Second, the entrenched complacency and ineffectual compliance of many public-employee unions in New Jersey has been mischaracterized by the media as either direct support for Christie or a passivity in the face of the “reforms” that he has pursued. As elsewhere, in New Jersey, “reform” has turned out to be a code word for “dismantle,” “demolish,” and “destroy.”
In the article “Newark Teachers Battle Governor’s School-Privatization Agenda,” Branden Rippey chronicles both Christie’s escalating efforts to replace public education in Newark with corporate-operated charter schools and the unwillingness or incapacity of the leadership of the teachers’ union to resist that privatization of public education. A decade and a half ago, the administration of the public schools in New Jersey’s largest city had been placed more directly under the governor’s control, but that transfer of power had not resulted in any dramatic improvements in the schools. Critics of the public schools and supporters of Christie privatization scheme have, of course, blamed all of the long-developing problems with the schools on the teachers’ unions, ignoring the fact that those unions have simply not been as powerful as they were being characterized.
Indeed, Rippey makes clear that the opposition to that privatization of public education started to coalesce long before “Bridgegate” and the associated scandals. For, ironically, before they could start to rally broader community support in opposition to Christie’s agenda, the core group of teachers who were determined to advocate for public education first had to take control of their own union. Because the inaction of the union leadership had led to widespread apathy among the member teachers, it took two election cycles for the reformers to build enough support to seize control of their union. Now that they have done so, their active resistance to the transfer of public funding and public property to corporate-operated charter schools has begun to galvanize support among formerly dispirited teachers and residents of the city. Each Friday, members of the union and their community supporters have been wearing black to signify their opposition to Christie’s determination to kill public education. They have been organizing neighborhood rallies to preserve publicly controlled neighborhood schools, and they have been funneling the energy generated by those rallies into a very large and visible presence at school board meetings and at any public appearances by the school district’s upper administration, which is dominated by Christie appointees.
Anyone who is familiar with the efforts to privatize urban school districts in other states will recognize the influence of ALEC in Rippey’s summary of what Christie has been doing:
“He’s pushed through pension and benefit ‘reform’ for district and state employees, massive cuts to state aid for public education and colleges, a two-year-plus pay freeze, a 2012 contract that includes ‘merit’ pay and “renew” schools (where the entire staff is laid off, forced to reapply for their jobs, with only 50 percent rehired), and a new statewide teacher evaluation system that rates teachers by student performance, partly on standardized tests.
“In textbook corporate education ‘reform’ style, the governor appointed a hand-picked superintendent, with no community input, who can overrule decisions made by a democratically elected advisory board. It’s the preferred way that conservative, predominately white politicians push privatization schemes in predominately black and Latino cities. For politicians like Christie, democracy is apparently only for white, suburban voters.”
That this passage is very politically charged does not make it any less accurate. Indeed, in Newark, the less-than-passionate defense of public education had proved to be no defense at all. And the fact that the teachers and their community supporters have decided to stand up to the governor’s bullying does not make them self-interested in any inherently negative way. Bridgegate has exposed the ugly underside of political self-interest, but standing up for public education, one of the core institutions of American society and culture, can only be characterized as being against the public interest by those who have lost all historic sense of what core American values actually are. Indeed, if teachers fighting for their schools and their jobs are to be characterized as self-interested, then how should one characterize the corporations that are leveraging political influence in order to generate stock dividends from the education of our children? When you get beyond the talking points, the cure to our struggling public schools is exposed as no cure at all. It is, instead, nothing short of an abdication of their public responsibilities by those elected to be public servants.